Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Diana's Free Range Fruitcake

Fruitcake gets a bad rap. I mean, a really bad rap. Most people, who just don't know, think that fruitcake is a flavourless doorstop with electric green and red fruits inside. And, a lot of the time, they're right. At Costco AND the local groccery store, there are displays filled with these "candied fruit" mixtures explicitly for this purpose. But fruitcake doesn't have to be that way. It can be anything you want it to be, provided it has the following three things:

  1. Fruit
  2. Nuts (The phrase, "Nuttier than a fruitcake," had to come from somewhere.)
  3. Booze
If you've got those three in your baked good, it's a fruitcake. My first foray into fruitcake was thanks to Alton Brown and his Good Eats Episode, "It's a Wonderful Cake" (Season 2, Episode 1).

I've been making this cake for over five years and have been slowly converting the unbelievers. I started taking commissions two years ago and, this year, the number of requests rose to 9! Try it just once and it will become your new holiday tradition. Trust me.

Since this recipe came from an earlier season of Good Eats, its structure and content leave a lot to be desired. Over the years, I have made notes, changed orders, amounts, ingredients, etc., to the point where, this year, I didn't have to change a word on my recipe. I also added my own recipe for a vanilla butter sauce that, I think, really elevates the cake from a muffin-like snack, to a true holiday dessert.

A quick note on the quality of the alcohol: Serious Eats investigated this very question and found that, while tasters could detect minor differences, it really wasn't worth paying through the nose for the top shelf liquor. That said, you don't want to use the crappiest stuff around either. I personally shoot for middle of the road.

So, without further adieu, I am proud to present . . . my version of Free Range Fruitcake.

Step-by-Step Photos

Step 1: Macerate the fruit

In a air-tight storage container (I use ziptop bags), toss together the dried fruit, candied ginger, lemon and orange zest, and rum. Let stand, at room temperature for 12-24 hours.

Step 2: Mull the fruit

Combine the fruit with the remaining flavouring components.

Simmer for 5 minutes.

Let cool completely before continuing.

Step 3: Toast the nuts

Preheat the oven, then toast the pecans until slightly darkened and barely nutty-smelling. (By time you can smell the nuts fully, they're burnt.) Roughly chop the nuts to the same size as the fruit pieces.

Step 4: Assemble the cake

Sift together the dry ingredients. Add the eggs and vanilla to the cooled fruit mixture. Gently stir in the dry ingredients and the nuts. Then divide evenly between two 8.5 x 4.5 inch prepared loaf pans.

Bake in the oven, along with a water bath, until a toothpick, inserted in the center, comes out clean. Immediately upon removal from the oven, spritz the top of the cake with brandy.

Step 5: Cure/feed the cake

Store the cake in an extra-large airtight container for two weeks to a month. Check the cake every three days and, if it feels slightly dry to the touch, spritz it with more brandy. Once you stop adding brandy, wrap the cake tightly with cling wrap and store at room temperature up to a month. Past that, I would recommend freezing the tightly wrapped cake for quality purposes.

Step 6: Give to a grateful recipient (optional)

Monday, June 10, 2013

More cake decorating

My friend's son turned two on the weekend. For his first birthday, it was easy to pick a present -- no kid's childhood is complete without a Tupperware Shape-O toy. But I had no idea what to get him this year. So I asked, "Have you ordered a cake yet?" Baking cakes is really a labour of love. When you factor in the total amount of time involved, even if you use a low hourly wage, it's just not worth it. That's why all those store-bought cakes are so tasteless and generic. But when you enjoy what you're doing, it becomes a hobby, and then the time can be justified.

For this baking adventure, I managed to take photos at every step of the process. And so I present, Cake Making 102 (I'm going to assume you've baked a simple cake before attempting the following).

Step 1: The Frosting

I have developed my own quick frosting recipe. I drew on several different sources when "perfecting" it, including the Good Eats episode (S11E19), Honey, I Shrunk the Cake, and the Wilton cake decorating website. You should note that none of these are true buttercreams. They are not made over a double-boiler with a simple syrup. They're a cop-out, but I'm ok with that.

Without further ado, the recipe:

Quick Vanilla Buttercream

Measure out 1 lb (~ 4 cups) icing sugar, then sift it into a bowl and set aside.

Combine in the bowl of a stand mixer:
            6 oz (¾ cup)    unsalted butter
            2 oz (~ ¼ cup) vegetable shortening

Beat on medium-high until light and fluffy (~3-4 min).

Add 1 large egg and beat on medium-high until well-mixed. The mixture will become lumpy and grainy but will return to a smooth texture.

Sprinkle over ½ tsp table salt.

Slowly incorporate the sifted icing sugar, alternating between low and medium speeds. Scrape down the bowl as needed.

Mix in 1 tsp vanilla extract. Beat frosting on medium-high speed for 3 minutes, until smooth and light in texture.  If colouring frosting, add food colouring at this time.

Thin with 1-2 tbsp milk to achieve correct consistency for spreading/decorating.

Use immediately or store in the refrigerator for up to one week or in the freezer for several months. Bring back to room temperature and gently re-whip before using.

Yes, the recipe has a raw egg in it. So do a lot of foods you eat. Nanaimo bars and tiramisu come to mind immediately. If you're worried, you can buy pasteurized eggs (expensive), or you can substitute the egg with 2 tbsp whole milk, but it's not the same.

Next up: Step 2 - Assembling the cake

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

I put salt in my coffee

Last weekend, I was at an event where coffee was served. After taking a sip, I reached for the salt shaker on the table on got the strangest looks ever, when I did one quick tap over my cup. That's when I remembered that it isn't common knowledge that salt blocks the bitter receptors on your tongue, masking any bitter flavour in your food. This is especially useful information for someone like me, who only really appreciates coffee for its caffeine content, and not so much it's trademark bitter flavour.

I also use this trick when eating grapefruit, which also has a bitterness. By shaking over a very thin layer of salt (as in, I could count the granules if need be) before I apply sugar, I can reduce the amount of sugar required by nearly two thirds.

And now you know.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Icing roses.

This past weekend, we "kids" threw a surprise birthday party for my mother-in-law. I offered to make the cake, and I'm very happy with how it turned out:

If anyone is interested in specifics on the cake (it took me 8 hours, all in), just ask and I'll share the details, but what I wanted to talk about today was how to make icing roses. They aren't exactly easy, but they're not as hard as they look and they definitely class-up any cake.

To make these roses you will need:
  • buttercream or royal icing (of a medium-stiff consistency)
  • a flower nail
  • a #104 tip and a #12 tip
  • a piping bag with a coupler (optional, but highly recommended)
  • some wax paper squares
 I was lucky to benefit from some one-on-one training with my mom, but I also found the following YouTube video helpful:

Also helpful was the Wilton resource page on roses.

Outside of what I learned there, here are a few things I learned on my own:
  1. If you are getting frayed edges on your roses, like this:
    it's because your petal tip is crimped at the thin end. I thought this was normal, but when I brought my tip in to the store to compare, I noticed the difference. Once I bought a new tip, I didn't have the same "frayed" look on my petals. I've also found distortions with a few other tips. It's to be expected since they're punched out of a mould.
  2. The standard Wilton buttercream recipe, with 2 tbsp milk, will give you a medium consistency. For roses and the like, I would recommend using only 1 tbsp milk to achieve a stiff consistency. It also depends on the temperature. The warmer the room, the softer the icing. It's easier to add more milk than it is to add more icing sugar, so err on the side of too dry.
  3. Vines and text require a thin consistency, so I added an extra tablespoon of milk.
  4. You can stuff the candles right into the cake, but it will leave unsightly holes afterward, and the wax will drip onto the cake (it's edible, but so what?). What I did was make stars all over the cake just before presentation and pushed the candles into them. That way the frosting (which has already dried and hardened) won't be disturbed.
  5. You really have to wing-it and squeeze out the icing. When I was timid, the roses didn't turned out. When I just went for it, they looked full and pretty.
That's all I can think of for now! If I think of anything, I'll add it as an edit.

Monday, July 16, 2012

To sift, or not to sift . . .

. . . That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to make the effort or to just bung it all in there and hope it all works out . . .
                   -- What Hamlet would have said, if he were a baker.

I used to not sift my ingredients. Then my husband got a mouth full of baking soda in a banana muffin. It's ok if it happens to him, but since I didn't want it happening to someone else, I started sifting my leaveners (baking soda, baking powder) and spices. The reason I sift my spices is because I grind my own whenever possible (more on that later), and the coffee grinder isn't perfect.

More recently, I also started sifting my flour. This was because I had a coupon for a free bag of flour (we're talking the BIG bags here) and I had to use it before it expired, which resulted in a bag of flour sitting in my basement since January (I don't bake THAT often). I live in Canada. It's humid here. So the flour became a little clumpy. How clumpy?

You don't want to eat that.
So should you take the time to sift your ingredients? The real question is; Does your ingredient need sifting? If you think it might, do yourself (and others) a favour and take the extra 30 seconds. You can measure straight into the sieve over your bowl and be no worse for wear.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The benefits of a kitchen scale

To my knowledge, of all of the people I know, I am the only one who uses a kitchen scale and I'm not sure why. Anyone who knows me has heard me go on and on about how a kitchen scale will change cullinary experience and yet, no one has ever adopted my suggestion. I think they must not believe me, or they're underestimating the effect it will have. *shrug* Either way, I will lay out my arguments for you, and leave it to you to decide whether or not you will take my advice
Stolen from the internets.

Benefit #1: Accurate measurements.
Did you just transfer your flour from the bag into the container? Or has it been sitting for a few days/weeks/months? In either case, the standard scoop and sweep method will yield completely different results. This is magnified with things like cocoa powder and icing sugar. How much does each pantry staple weigh? I've listed some of the common ones below, and you can keep it on your fridge, but after a while, you'll have it memorized, and will only have to multiply or divide by 2 or 4 to figure out the value. (You may ask why I've listed the numbers in ounces, when I'm a Canadian girl and, therefore, normally operate with grams. It's because there are less significant digits in the ounce amount which makes it easier to memorize.)

Item"Weight" per cup
AP Flour5 oz.
Cake Flour4 oz.
Bread Flour6 oz.
Whole Wheat Flour5 oz.
Granulated Sugar7 oz.
Brown Sugar7 oz.
Icing Sugar4 oz.
Cocoa Powder3 oz.
Butter8 oz.
Crisco7 oz.

Benefit #1a: Consistent measurements.
Do you know how that recipe you have for banana bread calls for 3 ripe, heavily speckled bananas? The one that tasted AMAZING last time? Did you use 3 small bananas, 3 regular bananas, or 3 jumbo bananas? And what does that look like, anyway? Any recipe like this that I've developed will say "12 oz. ripe bananas (approx. 3 large)" and it always comes out tasting great. No guess work.

Benefit #2: Speed and cleanliness.
No matter who you are, whether you're Gordon Ramsey or someone who's never baked a day in your life, it's significantly faster to turn on your scale with the bowl on top (this will tare the amount) and dump your ingredients directly into the bowl than to measure it out and transfer it. It will also reduce the amount of ingredient that ends up on your counter top and yourself.

Benefit #3: Less dishes.
If nothing else, if you don't care about accuracy, or speed, or cleanliness, you should care about the clean-up afterward. Using a kitchen scale will GREATLY reduce the number of dishes you produce. You won't need your 1/4 cup, your 1/2 cup AND your 1 cup measuring cup. You won't need that knife you use to sweep off excess ingredients. And you also won't need that spoon to scoop the ingredient INTO the measuring cup because the measuring cup won't fit directly into the ingredient container. These things add up and I'm sure my husband (who is a 4th order black belt dishwasher) is grateful for my mess-reducing economy.

Disadvantage #1: N/A
There aren't any disadvantages.

So if I've succeeded in convincing you, which scale should you buy? I went looking for an online photo of the scale I have (a wedding present), but it's so old that they don't sell it anymore. But it works fine, so I'm not about to go out and buy a new one just because. But if I were? I'd buy the OXO Good Grips Stainless Food Scale with Pull-Out Display. I like the idea of a pull-out display for when you're working with large bowls. Whatever you buy, just make sure that it has, at minimum, a 1g or 1/8oz resolution and a 5 lb max.

[1] Wolfram Alpha - Don't know how much your ingredient weighs? Start your search here.

Do you use a kitchen scale? Will you make the switch? Comment below!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Refocusing my efforts

I know that my viewership is few and far between, but I'm sure the occasional person has wondered by here via a Google search, or what have you, and wondered why there aren't any recent posts.

This is because, when I started this blog, my intention was to take a recipe, rework it, make it my own, and then post it. The problem with that is, sometimes a recipe is good as-is, and sometimes I just don't have the time to experiment until perfection. I *am* a grad student, and I can't be spending all of my time online.

Anyway, to make a long story short, I'm changing the focus of this blog to documenting my adventures in the kitchen and to sharing my large wealth of culinary information. Posts will be significantly shorter, but hopefully very useful and with plenty of resources.

Wish me luck!