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.

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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.

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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?)

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  • 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

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  • 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:

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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…

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

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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.

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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.

Earthquake Chocolate Cake

Growing up my mom would make chocolate cake out of a box and we called it “baking.”  That was all I knew until I attended culinary school.  From then on, those Betty Crocker boxes were replaced by cocoa powder and real vanilla extract (not the imitation stuff…).  Since the Napa earthquake that rocked me, my cocoa powder, and the rest of the contents of my well stocked cabinets onto the floor, I refuse to ever purchase the most obnoxiously messy baking ingredient that is cocoa powder.  Seriously, try cleaning up iced tea and vinegar saturated cocoa powder that has seeped into your kitchen floors.  The smell is worse than a three week old dead fish coated in simple syrup and pickle juice.  A dried cocoa powder spill is already hard enough to clean, let alone sticky, acidic chocolate goo, while your nerves are on edge from aftershocks.  So when I saw a recipe for chocolate cake that was made entirely from bar chocolate instead of cocoa powder, I was on it quicker than flies on three week old dead fish.

I got this recipe from Baking by James Peterson.  Its been one of my favorite cookbooks pre- and post-culinary school.  It is his “Chocolate Sponge Cake,” but tweaked slightly.  If you are in the market for a new book to test out, check out this book!

Earthquake Chocolate Cake : Yields two, 8 inch cakes

  • Bittersweet Chocolate  250 g
  • Water                               1 C
  • Eggs, warm*                   8 ea
  • Sugar                                200 g
  • Cake Flour                       210 g

*If your eggs cold, you can submerge them in warm water until they are room temperature.

1.  Preheat the oven to 350˚F.  Cut out parchment circles by tracing the bottom of your cake tin with a sharpie.  Then cut out the circles (does not have to be a work of art, I’m far from a Picasso).  Spray your cake tins down with some cooking spray and press the parchment circle cut out (butchered, roundish parchment in my case) into the bottom of the cake tin and then spray that down too.

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2. Take a small heap of flour and throw it into the bottom of the tin.  Move your tin around over the next tin or over a garbage can to fully coat the tin with flour.  You don’t have to go hogwild here, this is just to make sure that the cake comes out looking pristine.

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3.  Sift your cake flour and place it aside for later.

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4. Now heres a step that I never thought I’d ever be recommending, but combine the water and chocolate in a small saucepan.  Usually, water and chocolate should be NOWHERE near each other due to the fact that water will cause the chocolate to seize, not desirable.  But in this case, I’m asking you all to take a leap of faith and trust me.  Boil the chocolate and water down, stirring continuously until the chocolate looks like pudding.

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5.  Combine the eggs and sugar and beat on high for about 12 minutes with a stand mixer until it reaches ribbon stage.  Ribbon stage is reached when you lift the paddle out of the eggs and the mixture falls down gracefully in a band onto the surface and remains for a good few seconds.

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6.  Once you’ve hit ribbon stage, transfer the egg yolk mixture into a large bowl.  Working quickly but gently, fold the chocolate into the yolks.

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7.  Fold in your sifted cake flour.  Be sure to fold it completely into the batter or else you will wind up with lumps of flour in your finished cake.  You want to scrape the bottom of the bowl and jiggle the spatula up the center, trying to break up any pesky lumps.  Once you’re sure that you are lump-free, transfer your batter into your prepared pans.

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8.  Bake for about 20 minutes.  Once the cake is pulling away from the sides of the tin and the top does not jiggle when shaken or touched, your cake should be done.  If you are absolutely unsure, poke a toothpick into the center of the cakes.  If it is dry when pulled out, your cakes are done.

9.  Let the cakes cool completely, then remove from cake tins.  Before icing, be sure to remove the parchment paper.  Serve and enjoy!