Onions in the Backswing

When my sister woke me up one morning urging me to get downstairs and check on an in-progress cake in the fridge, I was petrified.  Did our brother come home from the bar last night and eat the cake that had to be delivered today? Sadly, that was the first conclusion I had jumped to (Sorry, Rick……).  I ran out of bed, into the kitchen, and saw my dad’s face full of apprehension and concern.  Reaching for the refrigerator, my dad told me to just “take a whiff.”

Onions.  The smell of freaking raw onions was burning my nostrils, and seemingly permeating my delicious, flambéed banana-filled cakes with their noxious odor.

While I was sleeping, a friend, who was then living at our house while his was being rebuilt after Sandy, decided to make some chicken kabobs for his lifeguard barbecue and leave them in our fridge until noon.  Fortunately for me (and, to be truthful, my friend’s livelihood), the buttercream-iced cakes did not take on the taste or smell of raw onions.  He got a warning and a free pass for that one.  That, and the fact that he’s basically the best houseguest/lifeguard captain a person could ask for, as long as he never cuts an onion whilst in my vicinity ever again (I mean it Matt… NEVER again).

Unfortunately, onions were the least of my worries that morning…

Anyone who has spent any amount of time on the East Coast during the summer months knows that stepping outside feels like the human body should have been equipped with gills.  The amount of moisture in the air is on par with that of a steam room, and the heat is like being punched in the chest by a flaming Socker Bopper filled with molten lava.  Summers in the Jersey humidity are about as comfortable as your brother’s obsession with perfecting the Socker Bopper knock out punch…. as in not at all.  However, there is blessedly a way to escape the heat and humidity in the form of the modern technology known as air conditioning.  That is, if your father (who resides in sunny Miami) decided to get air conditioning in the house… unlike mine.  We do, however, have some room units that my sister keeps blasted to allow our furbabies some relief from the heat, until my dad comes home and opens all the windows to let in the wind due to his hatred for this modern convenience.  All in all, my house is an air conditioning stand-off in which no one truly wins.

Because this was Father’s Day weekend, we decided to honor my dad by keeping the windows open to bring in the wind, smell of salt air, and, inevitably, the humidity.  Well, after I got over the onion-induced anxiety attack, I moseyed on over to the cute, golf-themed decorations I had meticulously molded the previous night expecting to find dry, solid golf clubs, flags, balls, and bag only to find a moist, goo-like coating on my semi-melted decorations. No bueño.  Cue anxiety attack numero dos for the day.

Example: this little guy was just a bit of late night shenanigans, and because I was decorating this cake for a friend, I deemed it necessary that he make it onto the cake.  But that moist sheen on him is the result of some the soupy-humidity of the Jersey Shore.

IMG_0016

Thankfully, my sister realized that there was a “dry” setting on the air conditioner in our kitchen window.  My dad, recognizing the dire situation and sweat dripping down my face from the heat, humidity, and wet-fondant-onion-stink-induced meltdown, took pity on my poor soul and granted me control of the air conditioning.  A few hours later, I had myself some mostly-dry golf clubs, flags, and bag to adorn my friend’s cake.

IMG_0009IMG_0017

When Life Happens

So it’s been a couple months since my last post… Thats about a couple months longer than I expected.  Well to bring y’all up to speed, this is what I’ve been up to:

  • dyed my hair violet (because, why not?)
  • took a trip to California to visit some of my favorite CIA chefs, wineries, and, of course, some best friends
  • dyed my hair bright pink (because, again, why not?)

IMG_0525

  • baked a kick ass LBI, NJ themed cake for some friends
  • dyed my hair light brown, because I’m definitely not cool enough (or patient enough) to keep up with the pastel hair trend

IMG_0666

  • went to LBI HopSauce Fest with my dad (just on a whim but had a great time)
  • accompanied my mom to Florida for some medical procedures
  • back to NJ to attempt to develop some kind of normalcy in my crazy life

All in all, there has been a lot of travel over the past couple of months.  While it’s looking like there is not going to be much of a let up in the next 2-3 weeks, here’s to hoping for some semblance of peace and quiet.

But in the spirit of my love for NJ and the island I call home, I wanted to share my favorite cake to date.

Here’s the story:

My brother’s girlfriend texted me one morning and all sorts of crazy thoughts popped into my head… is she pregnant, is my brother in a hospital somewhere (again) for supermanning over his bike into the pavement, did she hate my pink hair, are they engaged or eloping… I’m a worrier, yet romantic optimist.  Nope, none of the above.  Tess just wanted to know if I’d be interested in making a Long Beach Island themed cake for her family as a surprise to their parents for buying their beach house.  Was I interested? Heck ya, I was!

So off I went to make this cake, and I can assure you that it went anything but easy.  In my giddy haste, I messed up about every aspect of this cake.  Seriously an accident in the baking.  I didn’t do my math right TWICE (once with the cake and once with the buttercream) but that gave my cousin, Ellie, and me some goodies to eat.  Finally, I got the basics down and was down to the nitty gritty, and my favorite part, the decorations.  I promised Tess that I would give her something along these lines:

IMG_0570

I needed to perfect each of these items, not only because my brother’s girlfriend’s family would be judging me (they have a very large, fun family) and would disown my brother forever if it was horrible, but I had to do right by the island.  In my mind, every mistake I made for each component was a sign of disrespect towards the island I grew up on….no pressure.

Essentially, I sketched out how I would execute each element.  Initially, I thought Barnegat Lighthouse was going to be the biggest pain, but I was wrong.  I cut the pieces of the lifeguard stand a little two thin for my liking, so they were a bit (a lot of a bit) too delicate when dried.  Seriously, I tried everything to get that thing together…

IMG_0583

IMG_0592 IMG_0590

The ocean waves and birds were colored on with different colors of food coloring gel.  I was pretty happy with them in the end.

IMG_0588

The only thing about this cake that I absolutely did not like was the sign.  It was a brainless move by me, but I decided I would paint the sign (in the form of a Garden State Parkway street sign) with food coloring instead of color the gumpaste… big, big mistake. It came out pretty darn awful, and then I couldn’t get as detailed as I wanted to with the sign.  But I didn’t have enough time to make another one so it went on.

IMG_0598 Barnegat Lighthouse Cake

But in the end, and thankfully without any more brainless mistakes made by me, I think it came out pretty spiffy.  I mean, I got the colors of Ol’ Barney right, so there’s that.

Madagascar Vanilla Buttercream

When I first entered culinary school, I was as lost as Alice in Wonderland, but without the rosy outlook and cannabis-puffing cat. I had entered culinary school because I loved food, plain and simple. Throughout undergrad, I thought that one of the subjects I was taking would inevitably light a spark that would lead me towards a career filled with passion and challenge. Unfortunately, that spark only came while I was watching cooking shows, experiencing the foods of other cultures, or reading about the recipes of dishes in classic novels. It wasn’t until my junior year when I decided to go to a weeklong cooking class geared towards career discovery that I realized I was looking for that passion in the wrong places. Less than one year after I graduated from the University of Richmond, I was enrolled at the Greystone campus of the Culinary Institute of America.

Bedecked in my new chef’s coat and my checkered scrub-like pants, I was handed a knife kit and a backbreaking amount of recipe books. After a couple weeks of preliminary classes, we entered the kitchen and were expected to make a plethora of sweet treats. Tons of insane terms were being thrown out at me, and I was expected to make desserts that I had never even heard of before while my classmates were telling stories to the likes of that one time they ate a Mille-Feuille sipping an espresso while chatting up a cute, thick accented Frenchmen under the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

I was petrified.

One day we were expected to make Italian Buttercream. Being the amateur, I questioned whether or not this was the only type of buttercream. Answer: its not. While I cannot remember the specifics of that day (only that almost all of my cakes classes were an utter disappointment and disaster), I know that I had successfully withstood the task of boiling sugar, drizzling it into whipping whites, before adding butter in small increments. Not exactly as direly daunting as I originally expected.

Even a stale chiffon cake that smells, tastes, and feels like wet cardboard can be improved by this basic vanilla buttercream.

Madagascar Vanilla Italian Buttercream:

  • Sugar               200 g + 60 g
  • Water              Enough to make the sugar look like wet sand (I used 50 g)
  • Egg Whites      180 g
  • Butter, SOFT  380 g
  • Vanilla            1/2 tsp

1. Put about 100 g of the sugar into a clean, small pot. Cover this pot with enough water to make the sugar look like wet sand. Don’t worry if you’ve heavy handed the water, this will just take the sugar solution longer to reach the desired temperature.

DSC_1623

I may have put just a tad too much water in this, but like I said, it’ll just take a bit longer to boil out.

2. Place the egg whites in a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.

DSC_1621

3. Begin cooking the sugar, monitoring with a thermometer (candy or NSF approved, obviously not the kind you take your own temperature with unless you want to eat burned, carcinogen plastic confettied buttercream).

DSC_1624

Because you are cooking sugar in the wet method, you want to make sure that you wipe down the sides of the pot with a brush and water, or else you will have crystallized sugar bits, which will not cook out and you will have to start all over.  You really only have to wipe down once or twice just to make sure that all of the sugar bits on the outside of the pot are removed.

DSC_1625

3. When the sugar reaches 230˚F, begin whipping the egg whites. While the whites are whipping, drizzle in the remaining sugar. You want the whites to reach a soft peak. Meaning: when you take out the attachment and hold it up, the tail made by the whites on the attachment is firm enough to stand up on its own but not so firm that it stands up straight.

4. When the sugar reaches 245˚F and you’ve achieved medium peaked whites, turn the mixer down to a medium speed. CAREFULLY drizzle the hot sugar syrup into the whipping whites. You want to pour the syrup near the sides, far enough to avoid hitting the whip and splattering the sugar syrup along the bowl, and far enough from the sides to cause the sugar syrup to sink to the bottom of the bowl.

DSC_1630

This is probably the hardest part of the whole extravaganza, and it isn’t really that difficult….unless you are somehow as inescapably clumsy as I am, in which case I recommend some good burn gel and a whole lot of bandaids.

5.  Allow the meringue to continue to whip until the bowl is room temperature. Don’t begin early or the meringue may break. Once it is room temperature, begin dropping small chunks (about an inch or smaller) into the bowl as the meringue is mixing. Once the previous chunk has emulsified, add the next and repeat until all of the butter is incorporated

DSC_1634

See those scars? Yep, inescapably clumsy. Working in kitchens was probably not my best idea.

DSC_1641

DSC_1642

Your buttercream WILL most likely fall apart (meaning it will look like cottage cheesey in consistency).  DO NOT PANIC! Just keep doing what you are doing.  It will come back together again.  WORST CASE SCENARIO! You’ve put too much cold butter into the buttercream too fast and it will not emulsify.  Warm up the bowl using a torch if you have one.  If not, just use the heat from your hands or slightly dampen a towel and put it in the microwave until it is warm-hot to the touch and wrap it around the bowl.  Keep the mixer whipping until it comes back together.

DSC_1650

See- Cottage cheesey

6. Continue mixing the buttercream until it has turned white in color and has a fluffy, airy consistency.

DSC_1652

7. Add in vanilla and mix to incorporate

DSC_1656

Boom- Buttercream.

This buttercream recipe can be placed in an airtight container and left at room temperature overnight or placed in the refrigerator for about a week and a half. It is rather shelf stable due to the amount of sugar. Once you have need for this buttercream (whether it be for your mother’s birthday or for a filling for those macarons you have finally mastered), place in a bowl with either a paddle or a whip and let it aerate for a couple of minutes until you have your desired consistency.

Variations:

Chocolate: melt desired chocolate in microwave or over a water bath (be careful not to burn it). Stir chocolate into a small bowl of Italian buttercream to incorporate. Then stir that into the rest of the buttercream.

Coffee or liquor: Add to finished buttercream in small increments.

Praline paste: add a small amount of praline paste to a bowl with a small amount of Italian buttercream. Mix to incorporate. Add back into the desired amount of the buttercream