Saturday, April 18, 2020

Why I Make a Tiny Cake Every Day

I have made a tiny cake every day since the beginning of the COVID-19 quarantine. For my family, that started on March 17th, which happened to also be my 36th birthday. Each day I make a 6-inch version of an old favorite recipe, something new inspired by a cookbook or the internet, or something my brain just sprouted. There is no real purpose for these cakes- no friends to share them with or dinner parties to wow. Most of the cakes don’t even make it to social media. I just keep baking while it seems like the world is going belly-up.

The cakes are tiny because, like far too many people, I don’t have a lot right now. Groceries are limited and risky to obtain; money has all but dried up with my COVID-induced unemployment. Luckily, I’m no stranger to rationing and making things work on a budget. Sometimes, I treat it like a fun project, an opportunity to exercise my creativity. But, there are other holes in daily life that hurt and don’t seem easily patchable. I miss social interaction and going places with other people. Without work, it’s not just money I miss, but also the feeling of being useful and productive.  

I find myself thinking about what jobs I still have while technically unemployed. I have an 18-month-old baby and a dog to feed, bathe, house, and keep safe. In addition to the death of life as we know it due to a pandemic, I am two months into grieving the death of my mother. This, too, is work. There are bills to pay, emotional baggage to unpack, and logistics to organize. Another responsibility I’ve identified is this: I need to make moments of joy every day for my daughter and for myself. 

She and I appreciate the moments of joy that come to us, like the sun streaming through the window just right so it looks like a twinkling rainbow, the daffodil that graciously opens its petals for us to sniff, the bird that cheerily chirps in our backyard. We are thankful for the dog that walks past our house giving Hazel someone to wave to and greet from afar. The serendipitous things that just happen on their own and make us smile are great. But, we need more. I am not willing to ration joy. 

I look to my community for hints about how to make more of this essential joy bubble up. My sister brings her kids out to the backyard for animal cracker happy hour and makes bird feeders with them out of seeds and gelatin. My friend in Colorado bundles her kids up and pulls them around her snowy yard in a wagon. My friend in California hikes her toddler up to the top of the State Park behind her house so they can gaze at the San Francisco skyline together. My friend here on the island uses her daughter’s nap time to make homemade dyes so they can decorate Easter eggs together. It’s not always easy. But I’m learning that strong, creative people put in the effort to make these sweet moments because this is important work, now perhaps more than ever.

What do I have to work with to this end? I have an egg. And a cup of flour. And a good stockpile of sugar. Hazel and I crack an egg together and marvel at the golden, yolky interior. We watch the stand mixer spin round and round as it creams butter and sugar together into a fluffy nest. Hazel’s eyes widen as I plop the batter into the pan. We both wave and say “ciao!” as the cake goes into the oven. When the sweet smells of baking cake start wafting from the kitchen to our living room, we break from our game to scrunch up our noses and inhale the perfume. When the cake is ready to come out of the oven, Hazel excitedly squawks “hot! hot! hot!” She grins when I confirm that she is correct. When the cake is cooled and final touches made, Hazel sits down at our tiny toddler table, and I do my best to coax my big body into the child-size chair next to her. We say “cheers” as we clink our forks together and we dive into our tiny slices of cake. Hazel looks at me with her 8-tooth-smile, raises her eyebrows, and nods- her way of saying, “it’s good.” And it really is good in that moment. 

So, yeah, I make a lot of cakes, not because I want to drown in decadence, but because I need more good moments with my girl. A tiny cake a day has brought us a huge amount of joy. 

I’m compiling my recipes into a tiny cookbook of tiny cakes using mostly pantry staples. I don’t know when it will be ready and I don’t know how fancy it will be. But let me know if you want a copy. It feels good to put something sweet on the horizon, no matter how distant. :)

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Flash forward to 2019

A lot has happened in the years since I last posted. To name a few of the milestones... I went to culinary school in NYC, moved to Italy, moved to Boston, got my dream job making recipes at America’s Test Kitchen, and had a baby! I’m going to try to “back fill” some posts with stories about my adventures in butter, sugar, and flour. Stay tuned for some cakes I made for Cook’s Country magazine. Good to be back!

Friday, February 8, 2013

The Twins Turn Two

When their first birthday came around last year, Shea & Mirren each got "smasher" cakes. Yes, that's right, I made an intricately decorated cake for each baby to smash to pieces of crumbly, frosted mess while family and friends sang "Happy Birthday" to the guests of honor in their high chairs. Ridiculous, yes. But babies giggling through cake-covered grins, cute.

This year, I stacked the two toddlers' cakes on top of each other. And voila, a two-tiered fondant decorated cake for the two 2-year olds. I hope this one got eaten instead of smashed.

Ps: Here's a picture of the 1st birthday party last year...

Sunday, December 9, 2012

My New Pet

I have a new pet. It lives on my kitchen counter and is named after my favorite pasta shape: "Bucatini." Though made of water and flour, the two main ingredients of its namesake, my Bucatini is not a long, tubular shaped pasta. It is a living thing that I need to feed every day, take care of, and watch attentively for mood swings and unsavory personality shifts. Bucatini is my sourdough bread starter.

Sourdough bread starter is just flour and water mixed together. When combined and hydrated, the microorganisms present in the flour and the air (bacteria and wild yeast) start to ferment. This fermentation contributes to the flavor of the bread, as well as producing carbon dioxide gas which makes the bread rise. It is the special nature of the wild yeast found in the air surrounding the San Francisco Bay Area that makes "San Francisco Sourdough" so noteworthy and difficult to reproduce in other parts of the country. No commercial yeast from a package is needed to make bread when you have a starter -- and if you care for a starter diligently -- feeding it daily and making adjustments to control for its environment -- you can keep a starter for years. Bucatini is already 4 years old.

When in Rome, right? And here I am in the sourdough capital of the country -- it's time to make my own! But first things first. Bucatini's feeding schedule is kept on a dry-erase board in my foyer. I will keep feeding it (with new flour and water) each day and soon... oh, so soon... it will be time to turn some of Bucatini into a loaf of true San Francisco Sourdough.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Patent Leather Glazed

I live in a studio apartment, so needless to say, space is limited and precious. I have only one baby blue shelving unit and it must be meticulously organized at all times: the top shelf holds my 12 favorite cake stands, the next down is home to records of past pastry orders, cake portfolios and marketing materials, and the third shelf is the library. After 4 years at an Ivy League institution and 28 years of receiving books for holidays gifts from my very educated and well-read parents, you'd think my library might be an eclectic mix of heady non-fiction and classic literature. You would be wrong. There is not one book in my library that contains anything but recipes and photos... of food, of course. 

I love spending time gazing at my cookbook collection which holds everything from the pamphlet the local egg-roll lady printed up to sell at the West Tisbury Farmer's Market to Pastry School text books. A recent addition to my library is the "Miette" cookbook which shares the secrets to making this delicious Bay Area pastry shop's specialties. Flipping through the scalloped pages of this gem of a book is a pleasure on its own. To actually pick something out and make it in my own kitchen -- fantastic! Then the question arises: How do you choose when everything looks so tempting? I started reading the notes about each cake and then immediately stopped my search when I read the following description of the Bittersweet Ganache Cake: The glaze of this cake is so glossy it rivals the sheen of patent leather.

OK. No further searching necessary. You had me at "patent leather."

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Before and After

Cherry Pie. I spend so long making sure it's ready for the world ahead of it. Thoughtfully mixing the dough, gently laying the thin crust into the pie tin, ever-so-carefully cutting the top crust's lattice pattern, and then slowly and methodically crimping the two crusts together to make sure all the cherries are safely tucked inside. And then, it's time for the oven. "Good luck in there," I whisper as I shut the oven door. 

An hour later, I open the oven with excitement and an ounce of anxiety... Did it burn? Did the berries explode out of the crust and form nothing but a bubbly jam puddle on the bottom of the oven? But out comes my pie -- still beautiful, just a little hotter and shinier than it started.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Eating through Thailand

This summer I took my first, but certainly not my last, trip to Southeast Asia. My travel buddy and I picked Thailand as our destination because of its reputation for beautiful beaches, sacred temples, kind people, bustling markets, lush jungles and $5 hour-long massages. But mostly, I went to Thailand to EAT.

And eat I did... I sun-bathed on hammocks and spooned the "pet-pet" (very spicy) coconut milk curries into my mouth while lounging on the shores of the southern islands. I gobbled up "street-food" in Bangkok while standing in the steady stream of people coursing down Khao San Road, ordering plate after plate of pad thai noodles (for less than $0.50 each) from cooks with portable wok carts. I devoured the Chiang Mai regional specialty, kow soi -- a chicken soup with aromatic spices and crunchy noodles -- while traveling through the northern cities of Thailand.

Deep-fried bananas with a drizzle of sweetened condensed milk. Green papaya salad with lime and peanuts. Mango sticky rice. Green curry for breakfast. Savory bundles of chicken stuffed into balls of rice and wrapped up in banana leaves. Sweet. Sour. Salty. Spicy. I did it all.

And then, I learned how to make it myself. My travel buddy and I enrolled in 2 different cooking schools: one school in downtown Chiang Mai and one located on "Sammy's" organic farm. Our cooking teachers took us on tours of the markets explaining why the rice vendor's 12 seemingly identical buckets of rice had drastically different price tags (based on the age and location of the harvest), how a certain Thai fruit (the durian) smells so foul it is illegal to open one up on public transit, why the kaffir lime is superior to all other limes because of its bumpy fragrant skin and flavorful leaves, which varieties of basil should be used to optimize the taste of each dish, and how the production of coconut milk has evolved from squishing the coconut meat between your fingers to using modern machinery to quickly produce liters and liters of this Thai cooking staple.

And now, I dream of Thailand and stir up curries and memories in my Oakland kitchen.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Showering the Bride with Sweets

My good friends, Nora and Shawn, have been dating for almost a decade now. This month, they are going to Michigan to tie the knot in what I'm sure will be a magical lake-side wedding. Unfortunately, I cannot make it out to the Mid-Western ceremony, so I've been doing my very best to celebrate this gorgeous (inside and out) bride here in Oakland before the Big Day, showing my affection in the best way I know how -- baking her lots and lots of sweets!

Nora's Wedding Shower Dessert Menu:
Cacao Nib Cake with layers of Fresh Berries
Lemon Mini-Cucpakes
Mango-Passion Fruit Mousse with Raspberries
Buttermilk Panna Cotta with Strawberries

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Christmas in April

When I took on this order for my favorite vintage apron design company, Jessie Steele, I felt ready to bake up anything they needed for their product photo shoot. This meant navigating a different kind of "seasonal" work. While I'm just starting to dig up my summer recipes in anticipation of the first berries of the season, Jessie Steele is staging pages for their winter holiday catalog. To sit beside their festive winter-themed aprons in the photo shoot, they ordered this little fondant-covered, holly-adorned cake and a dozen decorated gingerbread men cookies. All together, it was quite a jolly delivery this morning.

Last night, though, the mood in my kitchen was less merry and more frustrating. I went through three batches of cookie dough, tweaking each one with slightly different ratios of cinnamon, nutmeg, all-spice and cloves. Somehow, nothing tasted quite right. When the smell of these Christmas cookies started wafting out of my oven and mixed into the the warm, flower-scented California air, my senses became flustered. Is it possible that gingerbread cookies actually taste different when eaten on a snowy day?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Happy Valentine's Day

In years past, I've been known to make a wedding cake each Valentine's Day. February 14th is, in fact, my favorite and most anticipated day of the year. But this year I thought about how to optimize my enjoyment of this most wonderful holiday. Did I really want to spend weeks leading up to the Big Day with my neck craned over the careful work of sculpting roses out of gum paste? Did I want my fingers to cramp up at each knuckle from holding those tiny paintbrushes meticulously dusting edible glitter onto the edges of sugar flower petals? Did I want to stay up, alone in my kitchen, on the 13th of February shuttling pans of batter in and plumped up cakes out of my single oven all night?

I decided the answer to all these questions was, well... "no." Instead, I invited two dear girlfriends over to my apartment to decorate cookies. Granted, I had the whole evening prepared -- I had already made the cookie dough and organized upwards of 25 different sprinkle options for decorating. But all in all, the operation was smooth, easy and full of laughter.

I woke up this morning with a hacking cough, sniffly nose and kitchen counters crusty with dried icing from last night. Though not religious in the traditional fashion, I am a firm and devout believer in the Cake Gods -- and this was a sign. Next year, ValenWedding Cake production will be in full swing again!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Selling Candy in a Barn

It's that time of year again -- the White Barn Winter Fair is next weekend! Just imagine the scene: you drive out of the crazy Bay Area traffic and down highway 29 through a tunnel of towering eucalyptus trees. Vineyards and fields of yellow mustard surround you on both sides as you continue through the Napa Valley. Then, you take a turn down a dirt road thinking, "am Ireally allowed here?" But you keep driving around the curves and past the family-run wineries until you reach the end of the road. There it is. The White Barn -- alone in an otherwise empty and vast field. And inside? Jewelers, painters, glass-blowers, screen-printers, potters... all displaying and selling their art. And then there's me, selling candy in a barn.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Simplicity meets Hydrangeas

This cake was so satisfying. Three tiers of pure, milky white, smooth, fondant-covered cake balanced like a yogi comfortable and confident in her standing tree pose. I felt content shaping my hands gently around the curves of the round cake forms over and over until the fondant surfaces were so smooth they started to glow like well-moisturized skin around taut muscles. I placed the cake out on my patio and just let it sit and breathe outside in the garden.

Then those hydrangeas I bought at the Farmer's Market earlier in the morning beckoned from their twine-tied bouquet. I added one purple blossom to the edge of the cake, like a sparkly brooch on a black dress. The splash of color was exciting. I brought the cake back into my kitchen. I added another blossom... and another...

Friday, April 29, 2011

Happy Spring!

Easter couldn't come and go without some sweet pastel indulgence. This year the festive desserts of choice were Robin's Nest cupcakes. Each little (gluten-free!) chocolate cake had a selection of malted candy eggs nestled into a nest of toasted coconut.

Check this out: I have my very own Easter Bunny! A tiny 3-pound rabbit named Charlie was in fine spirits on this special bunny-centric day -- and as always, very curious about all the sweet treats around my (sorry, I mean our) kitchen...

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Trucks and Trains at Tutu

When the director of a pinker-than-pink children's ballet school decides to have her 2-year-old son's birthday party at the studio, some pretty major construction is required to transform the space into a "boy-friendly" zone for a birthday bash. Luckily, the director/mom was up for the challenge! Yellow plastic hard hats were hung over the pointe shoes mounted on the wall, train track decals were temporarily stuck on to the dance floor, and giant colorful paper lanterns were taped up and over the life-size tutus that usually dress the walls, dutifully covering all the glitter, rhinestones and frills. Instead of magic-wand-making crafts, there were wooden trains to paint -- In place of the usual pitter patter of ballet slippers, plastic trucks with 2-year-old drivers barreled and collided into one another. To top it all off -- a chocolate with butter cream frosting cake and fondant trains choo-chooing around the top tier. Happy Birthday, Sullivan!

Monday, February 14, 2011

I Love You, Too.

Blanca comes to clean the house I live in every other Thursday. She has been in training since she moved to the United States a few years ago under the tutelage of her mother-in-law, Margarita (who used to clean this house until her business grew too large to handle alone). Despite the fact that I speak no Spanish and Blanca is still learning English, we have built a friendship based primarily on warm, happy smiles and enthusiastic nods. We don't know much about each other but we seem to be equally impressed by the other's work. I work from home, so Blanca sees and compliments my cakes and culinary creations; I am always in awe of how she makes the kitchen sink seem to actually glitter and sparkle. When we see each other, we don't really share stories or jokes. We jump right to the unspoken punch-line and spend our time laughing together.
On the biggest, most important holiday of the year -- Valentine's Day -- I make gifts for all my friends. Since I knew Blanca was coming on Thursday, I made her gift ahead of time. As I handed her a little transparent jewelry box filled with four heart-shaped strawberry pate-de-fruit candies, she stared at me without speaking our laughter language. I worried that somehow I had made her feel uncomfortable with this gift... but just then she proclaimed in a slow, strong, earnest voice: "I love you!" Perhaps her intended message was a little transformed in translation, but I'll take it.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Dear Holly: Happy Birthday!

My dear friend, Holly, is unlike anyone else I know. She's sweet, generous and smart -- like most of my friends. But she seems to genuinely like most things -- she's always finding some beauty in everything. This is a special ability (one I certainly have not been able to cultivate) and it flows so naturally out of her. Even though I know she's such a lover and would appreciate any simple cake I wanted to give her on her birthday, I found myself wanting to make her something special. She's not one for globs of frosting and flowers made of sugar. I went to my local produce market, bought as many berries as I could, and focused on the fruit instead of the cake. I piled golden raspberries, red raspberries, blackberries and currants on top of just a single layer of cake and a thin spread of passion fruit frosting (Holly's favorite). Shockingly, Holly loved it!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Jackson Pollock Wedding Cake

When I ask brides to describe the kind of decoration they want on their cakes, I hear a lot of the same key words: "something floral," "Martha Stewart-like," "simple and elegant." At this wedding tasting, I had the pleasure of sitting down with both the bride and the groom. I asked Will, the young man getting married, what he would like the cake to look like. He said, "Oh, you know, maybe something in the Jackson Pollock style." The response was so smooth and witty... or so I thought. The bride and I both started laughing, but he was serious. The three of us all decided to commit to this idea. I got my paintbrushes out and dripped and squiggled red chocolate over this fondant-covered white wedding cake. Edible abstract art? Why not?

Friday, October 8, 2010

Happy Birthday, Stranger.

After an hour spent meticulously molding the letters of her name out of dark chocolate a friend watching me work asked, "So how do you know Kimberley again?" It was a funny moment when I told him, "Well, I don't." I've never met her, don't know how old she is turning and know little else about her than these three key facts: Kimberley likes the color orange, loves the taste of chocolate and has a sister who ordered a cake for her from Sweet Peony. We never did meet. Cake-Maker and Birthday Girl remain strangers connected only by this double-decker Devil's Food cake.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

October Wedding Season is Here!

Congratulations Jamie and Bill! This lovely bride and groom had a gorgeous wedding this weekend in Healdsburg -- complete with a Sweet Peony (that's my wedding-cake company!) 5-tiered Pumpkin Spice Cake with Vanilla Buttercream and topped with some Shortbread Crumbles, Rose Hips and Huckleberry Sprigs. This "bruiser" of a cake stood over 2 feet tall on the reception table and weighed just about too much for me to lift on my own. That's a lot of cake! Happy October, everyone and get ready for a month full of wine-country weddings...

Thursday, September 30, 2010

I Don't Think It Gets Any Better

Baking with kids might be the greatest thing ever! Add on top of that -- the chance to make a cake with my adorable nephew, Chef Sam. In fact, Sam graduated from Jr. Chef to Chef this summer when he not only made the cake (maybe he had a little help from Aunt Katie) but he also designed the decoration!
Way to go, Sam! If you have a Little Chef interested in making a cake, cookies, ice cream or other favorite sweet treats, email me at to register for Sweet Peony Baking Lessons -- Baking classes & parties for toddlers and children in your home.

Monday, September 27, 2010

She Slipped Away to her Garden

Oops! Sorry to disappear like that! I heard my roses and zinnias whispering to me and I had to fly 3,000 miles to heed the call. This happens every year. Though happy and busy cooking the days away in California, when summer comes, I know there is only one place I can be: down a long dirt road - in a barn - next to a garden - overlooking a meadow. So up, up and away, over the country I went to that little Island where my family and my garden live. But Fall is here. And I'm back in the kitchen... That means more desserts are on their way!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Happy First Birthday!

This cake has 45 hand-cut black fondant polka dots spotting its vanilla buttercream skin. One of the polka dots represents this birthday boy's age... and he got 44 others for good luck! When "mom" asked me about making this cake for her son, she made me swear to never divulge how much design work, thought, baking, assembling and decorating went into this project for the baby. So, Mum's the word.

Thanks so much, Andrew for taking these great photos! Check out more of Andrew's work:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Commercial?!

Yes, it's true. Sweet Peony, my tiny little dessert catering company has its very own commercial... made by the oh-so-fabulous Scott McCabe and Tory Stanton of Two Trick Pony Productions. Scott and Tory have started a rockin' film studio in Berkeley and were generous enough to create this commercial. Check it out:

Check it Out

So exciting! My cupcakes were featured on "Style Me Pretty -- The Ultimate Wedding Blog" yesterday. I would have had no idea except that I started getting emails from strangers who read the blog asking to order cupcakes for their weddings... wow! The internet is amazing. That's all the news I have to impart today.

Check it out:

Emilie and Gray (the lovely couple I got to know by making these cupcakes for their reception) had a simply divine wedding in Sonoma last Spring. Congrats, folks! And the photography... nice work, Kate Webber!

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day 2010

I think it's a shame that most people only get to design and eat their own wedding cake once (or twice, or thrice). They are such wonderful, gigantic, over-the-top desserts. And to only allow yourself one (or two, or three) in a whole g
reat lifetime... tragic. That's why I have decided to make a wedding cake for myself (and any others who want to partake) every year on my favorite holiday. (I started in 2009.) The jingle of sleigh bells do nothing for me. Scary masks and cheap candy bars... nothing. Too much dry turkey and a stomach ache... nothing. But Valentine's Day -- that's the one holiday that really makes me tick. So I decorate my house, I wear all the pink and red I can pull out of my closet, craft heart-shaped candies, make goody-bags for friends and students, fill the house with sweets and pink-colored savory foods... and slowly, but surely, work to convert all those Valentine's-Day-haters to loving (or at least tolerating) the sweeter side of the day. I find the best tool for such
a job to be 4 tiers of cake.
Valentine's Day Cake
Tier 1: Chocolate cake with Strawberry Buttercream
Tier 2: Vanilla cake with Passion Fruit Buttercream
Tier 3: Lemon cake with Blood Orange Buttercream
Tier 4: A teeny,
tiny, vanilla cake
Decorated with hand-made gum-paste and buttercream roses

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend

... Especially when the diamonds are edible, sweet and pink. I found incredible candy molds from a catalog that enable you to make chocolate in the shape of diamonds, saphires, and rubies, oh my! Like real jewels, I could not wait to get my hands on them. I dyed my chocolate different shades of pinks and reds and eagerly poured it -- warm, melted and silky-- into the tiny jewel forms, waiting impatiently for the chocolate to harden up into its new gem identity. There's something intoxicating about sparkly jewels. Something totally captivating. And why? They are useless, really. But oh so beautiful. And at least these... you can eat!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Ballet Bash

The Sugar Plum Fairy made an appearance. 100 little girls in tutus tip-toed around the floor. An entire corner of the room was dedicated to making foam tiaras. It may have been the most entertaining party I have been to this year. Tutu School celebrated its Grand Opening of the Marin studio this past weekend in style. And, since one should always take advantage of having an in-house pastry chef/ballet teacher, I was the lucky caterer selected for the event. The director of the ballet studio, my boss, scanned my "holiday bite-sized dessert menu" and selected some truly tutu-terrific items for the pink polka-dotted dessert display. We re-created The Nutcracker's Land of Sweets pretty seamlessly... Even young Clara would have to agree.

The Menu
Mini Cupcakes with Pink Buttercream
Sparkle Caramel Lollipops
Button-sized Cookies
Snow White Meringue Kisses
White Chocolate-Peppermint Tartlettes

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Taking on Trifle

Trifle: A traditional English dessert created to use up stale left-over cake. That's right -- when a cake has been sitting around for many days, has lost all of its moisture, and has basically become inedible, that's when trifle gets made. To mask the unfortunate state of the cake, you soak it in Sherry, pile berries on top, and cover everything up with a thick layer of custard. Packed with booze, fruit, and creamy pudding, what doesn't taste good? Since it has always been the dessert equivalent of the dreaded "kitchen sink casserole" in my mind, I was caught a little off guard when a client ordered four large bowls of trifle for her glamorous holiday party this year. I eagerly agreed to cater the party, but then had a moment of hesitation: Am I really going to make old cake? I decided that sometimes it's best to make a small break from tradition. These trifles were made from freshly-baked genoise cake, strawberries, raspberries, and blueberries from Berkeley's best produce market, the better part of a bottle of Cream Sherry, and a homemade vanilla moussaline. Sorry, Brits.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Turkey Day Truffles

I know. My sister had the same complaint: "It's Thanksgiving, Katie. No pie?? Are you completely crazy? It's not Thanksgiving without pie... It just isn't." Apparently she was not thrilled when I presented her with my menu mock-up for the big family dinner. I thought pumpkin pie, apple pie, pecan pie... so passe. How about something new and fresh? How about a candy bar! I thought I'd make little bite-size confections... chocolate truffles, peanut brittle, caramel apples, lollipops, pate de fruit. It would all be so colorful and fun (and gluten-free for my parents' new diet)! Especially when we have (the most adorable in this world) 5-year-old twin nephews coming to visit for Thanksgiving. Kids don't like pie. They like candy, right? And I happen to know that many adults can be convinced into some good ol' fashioned sugar bingeing from time-to-time. But if you've met my sister, you know her powers. After reading aloud (quite loud) every pie recipe listed on, I raised my white flag of surrender. In the end, there were pies, and pumpkin pecan cheesecakes at our Thanksgiving table. Apparently, without their presence the holiday would have had to be called "The day formerly known as Thanksgiving." Luckily, I was able to slip one item from my candy bar menu onto the table: 70% dark Valrhona chocolate truffles enrobed in a Callebaut milk chocolate coating and tossed in coconut.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Lollipop Lollipop

Oooh lolli, lollipop! There's something about lollipops that just reminds me of having fun... maybe because I associate them with childhood, or maybe it's the adorable jingle referenced in the title of this blog entry that always makes a smile spread across my lips. People eat all sorts of foods off of sticks... frozen bananas at street festivals, meat in most Middle Eastern countries, cotton candy at the amusement park. It's just fun! And the treats pictured here are pretty sophisticated too: 70% creamy dark chocolate ganache truffles enrobed in a hard chocolate shell and then rolled in a mixture of cacao nibs and crushed, candied pecans. And you don't even get your fingers dirty.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Time to Taste Some Cake

I think it's a confirmed fact that making a wedding cake is hard. But try making just one slice of 5 different wedding cakes! Turns out, making a slice of cake is much more difficult than making the whole darn thing. I had a lovely bride-and-groom-to-be visit the palatial tasting room "Chez Grant Street" a couple weeks ago. I thought: I'll just make a few base cakes, a bunch of delicious fillings, a handful of different frostings and we'll mix and match to see what they like. Mmhmm. Sounds easy breezy.. that is, if you have never met me. I found myself in my kitchen at the eye of the familiar tornedo that surrounds me whenever I take on pastry projects. Passion fruit curd, mango mousse, milk chocolate ganache, dark chocolate ganache, passion fruit moussaline, strawberry buttercream, raspberry buttercream... they just kept flowing out of my head and into pots while I stirred and strained and stored as if in a trance. When the day of the tasting came, I just sat staring at all the sheets of cake, the miscellaneous containers of fillings and goo, and frosting. What was I thinking? But I put on my butcher persona and started hacking away at the cakes. I split them open, filled them up, stacked layers on top of each other and did my best to create the appearance of a slice of tiered wedding cake. I think it worked. The bride and groom wanted to take one of each. Oh no...

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Grey is Just Not Appetizing

I had to break it to her. Of course, I fussed around with a lengthy pre-amble first: "Slate grey and yellow.. wow, such sophisticated wedding colors. So perfect for the invitation. I can just imagine the gorgeous yellow bridesmaid dresses with classy grey sashes around the waist. And the yellow flower bouquets with slate grey ribbon -- super chic." But after all of this, I had to tell my bride the honest truth: "No one, I promise you, will want to eat a slate grey cupcake." She didn't believe me at first. Though it pained me, I made her some muddy, grey frosting... flinching in my kitchen as I tried to decorate her taster-cupcake as elegantly as possible. One look, and she understood. With your eyes closed, it still tasted like rich, delicious vanilla French buttercream. But with eyes open, no one wanted to even approach the dull, grey specimen. Solution: I custom-dyed some fondant slate grey and cut out hearts to put on top of the (much more appetizing) cream-cheese-frosted cupcakes.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween, Harry

So what would you say if someone asked you to make a cake based on a book you've never read? I guess you could gracefully decline the offer and refer the client to another, more well-read, baker. You could quickly skim through book to try to get the general gist of the story-line and characters. Maybe you could even rent the movie version and watch a few frames to get some images and ideas to transfer into frosting and cake. All three of those options sound feasible. Unfortunately, I am basically incapable of saying "no," I don't read (sorry, Brown University education), and the Harry Potter movie scared the living daylights out of me within the first 5 minutes of sitting down to watch it. So I was in a pickle. I agreed to make a cake for a 6-year-old Harry-Potter-obsessed neighbor of mine here in Berkeley that would make her eyes light up and hopefully evoke the magical spirit of a story, and whole imaginary world, I knew nothing about. I tried to google "Harry Potter" and all the search results seemed to be written in a foreign language... words like "Hogwart" and "Quidditch" kept popping up. So I decided to talk to an expert... a woman who had read every book. She gave me the quick run-down, re-enacting a few scenes for me, and eventually I was able to piece together enough to make a cake.

Apparently there's a scene in one of the books where Harry is led to a room full of spiders, so I made lots of milk and dark chocolate spiders. Then I found an image of Harry's lightening bolt scar on his forehead, and hand-cut this shape out of rolled fondant. I made some topsy-turvy cakes, staked them asymmetrically on top of each other, covered it in frosting and purple and black glitter sprinkles and placed a chocolate "sorting hat" on top of a hand-made fondant stool. Our birthday girl was thrilled. Phew.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Proof is in the Pudding

I always need a project. Something that allows me to research, take notes, and inevitably, forgo sleep for nightly games of mental ping pong as I toss ideas from the left side of my brain to the right side, and back again. I surround myself with cookbooks, scribble down ideas as I read and rifle through the pages of glistening dessert photos. Then, with a bundle of notes and primitive sketches under my arm, I forge into the kitchen like a warrior onto a battle-field. And then the same thing happens every time: I surrender all my plans and diagrams and formulas and make whatever feels right in that moment.
Project: Classic American Desserts Made Classier
First Attempt: Rice Pudding
Pictured above is a Maple Pecan Banana Risotto. A bruleed slice of banana sits on top of the spoon, dictating that your first bite of the dessert be one packed with the caramelized crunch of the sugar coated fruit. Candied Pecans lie on the plate to accompany the pudding, or to enjoy as tasty treats on their own.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Strawberry Shortcake

If I knew your were coming, I'd have baked... strawberry shortcake. I know I once swore to be faithful to wedding cakes -- til death do us part, making, baking, decorating, and obsessing over those frosted frilly layers of Bridezilla cakes. But what can I say. I want a divorce. Or at least an open-relationship. I'm just over it. Why spend so much time making the fillings and the cake, just so you can carefully, and painstakingly cover up every inch of it with what is, let's face it, a thick coating of sugar and butter? I want to make a dessert where I can see all of my hard work, and lust over the flavors, textures and smells that I will enjoy when I take my first bite. I want to eat with my eyes and feel satisfied without ever opening my mouth. And that's what makes strawberry shortcake the perfect dessert. You see the lucious whipped cream cascading out of the sliced-open shortbread biscuit while you smell the meyer lemon zest baked into the dough. The strawberries, so red and supple, invite you to take a juicy bite. The rose-infused sauce, pooling around the edge of the dessert just taunts you to dive in with your spoon. That's what I want my desserts to be -- inviting, irresistable. No more hiding the sweet gem inside a chasitity belt of buttercream.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Here Comes The Bride

No mom, I'm not getting married. But recently my landlady's living room has become the "tasting room" for hip brides and grooms -- potential cupcake clients. The engaged couples, sometimes with parents in tow, navigate their way to the East Bay following my less than exact directions to a blue trimmed house nestled in the quiet residential bliss of North Berkeley. Awaiting them is milk, water, napkins, and at least 5 different kinds of cupcakes for them to taste, each one with its very own "cupcake name tag." The couples taste, compare, and hopefully, order dozens of cupcakes for their wedding receptions. So far, so good.

If you happen to be getting married in the Bay Area and want to taste cake or cupcakes, you too can attempt the scavenger hunt to the "Berkeley Bliss Tasting Room." Email (That's me, if you didn't already know.)

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Pro Bono Tarts

As I was slicing each apricot and delicately placing one sliver on top of another, making sure that just the right portion of each segment was touching the other, a friend walked into my kitchen and sat down next to me at the table. After a few silent moments of watching, she asked how much I would charge for a tart like this. I thought about it, took a brief fantasy trip to the adorable bakery I own in my dreams, mentally crunched one or two numbers about ingredient food cost... and then returned to reality. "This is a pro bono kind of dessert," I concluded. "The kind I only make for family... or maybe a really good friend. It's not for sale." Between the organic blanched almond flour I biked 4 miles to retrieve for the crust, the homemade creme patisserie and nut butter I made and mixed together for a tasty filling, the slicing and painstaking arrangement of fruit on top of the tart, and the shiny glaze I apply to each piece of fruit with a little brush... there's just no possible way I could charge a price that anyone would pay to buy this tart. I'm sure I could cut some corners, be remarkably more practical (drive to the store instead of bike, perhaps), make the tarts en masse with the same design each time, and assemble the tarts like desserts instead of art projects. But... alas. These are sacrifices I don't want to make right now. So for now, it will remain the Pro-Bono Tart.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Reign of Rhubarb

A freshly cut stalk of rhubarb is firm and glossy, the color ranging from light pink to crimson red and a secret light green circle may reveal itself once sliced open. If you were to take a bite of the raw stalk, chances are your lips, like mine, would pucker and your eyes would squint holding back tears from the burst of tartness exploding in your mouth. Better this than the even more unpalatable reaction had you eaten the leaves of the rhubarb stalk which are, in fact, toxic due their content of oxalic acid. Why then, knowing these things, am I so in love with rhubarb? My passion for this stalk is so deep that I spent every Wednesday and Saturday morning for an entire summer trying to befriend a grouchy old rhubarb farmer just to feel a little closer to my favorite produce. Despite my overly cheery 9am smiles, zealous "Hello there! How are you?" conversation attempts, and consistent patronage, it took about 2 months to finally get this farmer's eye contact, and another couple weeks to win a wave from him when he saw me coming. My relationship with rhubarb itself, however, has always been solid and loving. I use it in everything... pies, crumbles, tarts, even savory dishes like rhubarb-glazed roast pork. For this summer tart, I candied thinly-sliced rhubarb and fanned it out over a caramel covered frangipane tart.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Red, White, and Blue

I don't think theme desserts are my thing. But Independence Day comes but once a year, so I thought I'd give it a shot. Brainstorm with me for a minute... How many blue foods are there out there? There's the obvious -- blueberries. Other than that? I couldn't think of anything, and I had no blueberries. Solution: I dyed some white chocolate blue and then used it to cover almonds. Voila! Tacky, perhaps, but this red cherry, strawberry, blue almond, white chocolate-covered tart did the trick for our 4th of July picnic.  

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Women's Group

My mother called me in mid-May asking when I was coming home for a visit, and specifically what date I might be available to cater a luncheon at the house. Turns out the Unitarians were anxious to organize their summer calendar of "Women's Group" meetings. They meet twice a month and rotate the host house so every member takes a turn opening up her kitchen table to the group of women to share stories... and snacks. The first time the ladies came to our house, my mom asked if I could throw some refreshments together. I whipped up a quick curry chicken salad, snuck past the ladies tumbling into the house, and headed off to the beach. Apparently, the Sunday following the meeting at our house, the church buzzed with reviews of curry chicken salad instead of the usual religious banter. Each year after that, attendance at our house seemed to grow, and I continued to make more and more elaborate snacks. This year, not only was the group larger then ever, some ladies even brought their own "to go" bags.

The Menu
Cream-puffs filled with chocolate ganache
French macaroons sprinkled with powdered sugar
Home-made salted caramels
Candies walnut, cranberry, and goat cheese sandwiches
Toasted bread with hummus, radish, cucumber, and kalamata olives
Fresh fruit frangipane tart

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Much is That Peach in the Window?

"5$? Are you sure? Can you weigh it again? There must be some mistake." I tried to reason with the shop-keeper, but apparently it was indeed possible and nonnegotiable -- my one, single peach was going to cost me $5. How can this happen? A confluence of realities with which I am all too familiar: An adorable boutique farm-stand serves the wealthiest clientele of an already famous resort island. Most likely, they could charge $50 for that same peach and most of their shoppers wouldn't blink an eye. How did I fall into this ridiculous scenario? One simple answer: I smelled the peach from across the room. It called to me, and I came running. At least it made a delicious tart.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fields of Cakes

Who knew that 200 cupcakes is quite a hefty order? I do now. And so does my dining room. I successfully covered every inch of the old mahogany table in our beautifully formal entertaining space. Lined up by flavor -- chocolate (with caramel sauce inside), vanilla (with lemon curd filling), and strawberry -- the 200 cupcake soldiers dominated the house... and my morning. Now frosting all 200 tiny cakes... that took care of my afternoon hours.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Who Needs Cake?

Maybe I don't need to be sweating over my oven in this Berkeley summer heat, or constantly finding dabs of crusty frosting on my face at the most awkward times. I've found another totally satisfying and aesthetically pleasing side of the dessert industry: Homemade Cake Stands. I did some savvy shopping and researching on the subject, and I found that on average, a cake stand costs between $30-$60. (!) That's probably more than you are charging for the cake on the stand. So I decided to make my own. Mine are the white porcelain tiered cake stands on the right and the black-stemmed stands on the left. Check the blog soon to see some of my more funky designs I'm working on! If you are a chef, caterer, or just a cake-stand-lover and want to purchase one of my stands, contact me. They're for sale!

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Polka Dot Parade

I know I should branch out. I know I should experiment with basket-weave, swirls, rosettes, shell borders, fancy icing designs. But I am tragically in love with the simplicity of the polka dot. I take out my Wilton manuals and archaic cake-decorating magazines from decades past, flipping through all the "how-to" decorating lessons. I practice all the standards -- classically elegant and hideously outdated -- I skip none. But then it comes time to dress up my cake, and without even realizing it, I start polka-dotting every frosted surface. Maybe it's "my thing." Can I do that? Claim the polka dot as my trademark? I'll look into it... but I think I better keep practicing my basket-weave... just in case. 

Monday, June 15, 2009

It's Birthday Season

Happy Birthday to you... again. This cake is a pretty funny story. Aside from the fact that it looks like I swiped it right from under Barbie's nose, this is actually the second time I am catering Reyna's 4th birthday. Her first party was at the ballet studio where we had vanilla cupcakes with pink frosting and purple sugar roses. Reyna's mom placed another order for the family party today at their home. The girl knows what she likes: Pink frosting again... Purple flowers again. Can't wait to see what 5-year-old Reyna will want! 

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Stop and Smell the Sweets

This weekend was my busiest yet for my under-the-radar cake making business I've been trying to start up. Five orders in one weekend: 50 cupcakes for a party at a bar, 2 sets of pink cupcakes for ballerina birthday parties, 2 elaborate cakes for a 4-year-old birthday girl, and a cake and cupcakes to be used as props in a film being made about a pastry delivery service (!). My hands feel overly moisturized with butter, regardless of how many times I hold them under burning hot water. I just found some frosting on the cuff of my favorite sweat shirt. My red hair has spots of white, not from aging, but from fly-away flour from this morning's baking. Sometimes I just need to take my cupcakes and look at them lovingly. I place them carefully on a cake-stand, cover them with a gorgeous glass dome, and enjoy their company while drinking a cup of tea in the living room. And then... Back to work! 

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Devil's in the Details

I started decorating this cake for my friend, Scott. No big deal. I just filled a vanilla cake with some strawberry rhubarb preserves (one of my students made this jam for me in class the other night -- yes, rhubarb just might be my favorite stalk). Then I frosted it with vanilla buttercream and thought I'd give it a little chocolate tease with some piped decorations. Originally I was thinking something subtle, sparse, free-form. Then I remembered that I don't really have any of those three words in my vocabulary. I got the icing in my piping bag, sat down over my cake, and started making individual, tiny chocolate dots: One circle around the edge of the cake... then another circle inside that circle... then another.. and another... Damn you, Detail Devil! One hour later I finally plopped my last little chocolate polka dot on Scott's "simple" cake.