Friday, December 27, 2013

FEED Projects: Beyond the Bag

Today I wanted to take a brief break from cake to bring awareness to a cause near and dear to my heart, childhood health and hunger. This may seem a little out of the ordinary coming from someone who literally eats dessert for a living, but the opportunities afforded to me in my career are exactly what have brought this important issue to light for me.  After working in a 5 Star 5 Diamond restaurant in the middle of a food dessert for the past four months, it definitely got me thinking about the amount of waste that occurs in my industry and how many people there are in the U.S. who live without affordable access to a fully stocked grocery store. I live 25 minutes by car away from the nearest store that participates in WIC, food stamps and other government welfare programs. The nearest state funded food bank is a 45 minute drive away.

I think about food probably 75% of my thoughts throughout the day, but I have never worried about when and how I would get my next meal. I have a car, job and my health, but right now I live around a lot of people who don't have any of the three. It makes eating, period a difficulty. It makes eating healthy nearly impossible. The kids who were born into these circumstances go to school hungry and can't focus or learn. We all depend on them for a better future, but they depend on us for even the most basic of needs. Because all kids in the U.S. are legally supposed to attend school, school feeding is the most effective way to tackle the problem.

My goal this winter season was to be as local as possible and support a charity that does more than pump money into an endless system, but actually provides a positive, tangible result from my donation. The upsetting thing that I found was that there wasn't a local foundation (focused on children) that was organized and established sufficiently in the community. That's an ongoing project for the future. This year I'm starting small and taking a baby step by supporting this excellent foundation started by Laura Bush, FEED Projects.

Photo source:

What I loved about this organization is that in return for your donation they send you a bag (designed by Laura) that becomes an advertisement for their cause as you carry it around. With your purchase they provide you with the number of how many school lunches you are providing and where your money is going. I bought products that all benefited the United States school system and gave them as Christmas presents to my family members. You can also choose to support other countries such as Guatemala, India, Kenya or Haiti. The small but mighty organization works with larger partners as well like the UN World Food Programme and UNICEF. Here's some food for thought from the FEED Projects website:
  • Hunger is No. 1 on the list of the world's top 10 health risks*
  • 1 in 7 people go to bed hungry every night*
  • Hunger and malnutrition kill more people than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined*
  • 65% of the world's hungry live in only 7 countries around the world*

* World Food Programme's Facts Blast; November 2010

The bags I got in return for my donation:

 A wine bag- pushing it, maybe. Loving it, definitely.

For my book nerd sister, this one also partners with Room to Read, an organization dedicated to improving childhood literacy. In addition to school meals, this donation also sends books.

 This was the original bag designed for the foundation and its purchase provides ten school meals.

You might also see FEED products in retail stores like Gap, Target and Whole Foods but as with any donation through a secondary source, double check what percentage of your purchase actually makes it to the foundation if that is important to you. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Bûche de Noël: The S'mores Cake

This cake evolved from the cupcake version that I made this fall to mimic the one and only fireside s'more.  If you remember, I'm somewhat obsessed with homemade marshmallows and how delicious they are, so any chance to use them in a cake- I'm game. While those cupcakes were a sticky, gooey s'mores masterpiece, the cake version is much friendlier to that glamorous holiday party attire you'll soon be donning.

The s'mores cake version is the same graham cracker pound cake with the flavors of vanilla, honey and cinnamon layered with homemade vanilla bean marshmallows and a bittersweet chocolate ganache. The entire cake is frosted using Italian meringue and toasted to give it the festive look of a Bûche de noël. A few chocolate dipped mallows sit on top to give it some height.

I love the rustic look of toasted meringue and brought in pine cones and rosemary to finish the holiday centerpiece look. Red berries or holly wold also look really nice with this cake, although you have to be careful when bringing inedible plants around food. Unlike a traditional roulade Bûche de noël, this version is sure to appeal to the everyone at your holiday party, even the younger crowd. Who doesn't love s'mores? 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Mason Jar Cupcakes

Everything tastes better when eaten out of a jar, right? It's definitely true, I think, when it comes to cupcakes. No messy wrapper? Check. No frosting caught in the corners of your mouth? Check. All the deliciousness and presentation of a cupcake but given to you in a neat little mason jar.

 In this mason jar is my pumpkin spice cupcake made with fresh pumpkin puree, topped with maple cream cheese frosting and a roasted pumpkin seed brittle. They would be a great addition to any Halloween or holiday party as a favor for guests on the way out of the door, or an innovative way to serve dessert that guests can eat mess-free while standing.

I can dress up the jars however you'd like with fabric, burlap, colorful paper or ribbon. They can even be customized with a logo, sticker or monogram and date. A spoon attached to the side with twine would make for an even more convenient way to enjoy.

I love this idea as a wedding favor too. If you decide to forgo the traditional wedding cake, but want something sweet for your guests to take home, these little jars are it. If you want a mini dessert display in lieu of a traditional tiered cake, again, these are for you. They can be layered with any combination of frosting, filling and cake in any size jar. Easily transported and refrigerated, these babies are sure to impress anyone. Not to mention the guests get to keep the jar as a souvenir.

Grab a spoon and dig in! Get your pumpkin fix in other posts from this season here and here.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Not your average Pumpkin Cupcake

In keeping with all of the pumpkin love currently lining the grocery store shelves and coffee shop counters, here's a look into my take on the beloved fall favorite: The pumpkin cupcake.

Mine is a moist and tender pumpkin cake topped with a swirl of maple cream cheese frosting and a spiced pumpkin seed brittle. The perfect combination of crumbly, creamy and crunchy, this cake is sure to make anyone swoon over Fall. Let's get a close up of that brittle.

The cake is flavored using the homemade pumpkin puree I gave a tutorial on last week, and warm spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. The frosting has all of the nutty,creamy goodness from the cream cheese paired with the sticky, sweet maple syrup. Together they create the perfect compliment for the spice in the cake. A little crunch comes in with the toasted pumpkin seeds covered in amber colored caramel and hardened into a fall flavored brittle. Tailgating, anyone?

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

How to Roast and Puree a Pie Pumpkin

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays, mainly because of the excuse to pig out on candy and all things pumpkin. These days you can find a pumpkin flavored version of just about anything in the grocery store and I definitely don't hate it. Pumpkin is one of my favorite flavors to bake with especially when mixed with the right combination of spices and seasoning. My great-grandmother made homemade pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving using heavy cream and real pumpkin that she roasted and pureed herself at home. Inspired by her, I decided to forgo the usual Libby's can that I reach for this time of year and make my own pumpkin puree instead. I was so pleasantly surprised by how simple and tasty it was that I haven't used anything else since. Freshly pureed pumpkin has a sweet and mild squash flavor and a gorgeous, bright orange-yellow hue. The trick is to start with a pumpkin that is small in size and heavy in weight by comparison.

I'm lucky enough to be currently living in farm country VA, where a farmer down the road toured me around his place on his gator and helped me select this perfect pumpkin for only $2.00. But you can now buy pie pumpkins (sometimes called 'sugar' pumpkins) in most grocery stores or stands where you buy your jack-o-lanterns. For a size reference, I put mine next to a medium sized apple.

The first step is to split this baby open. I sliced the top stem off of mine and then cut it in half twice to get four, even-sized quarters.

Then I scraped the insides just as you would if you were carving a pumpkin for Halloween, and of course reserved the seeds for toasting.

Put the quarters in a baking dish, dot with butter and sprinkle with salt. Depending on what you're going to use the puree with, you can also start flavoring the pumpkin here by adding stems and leaves of your favorite fresh herbs. Rosemary and sage are my favorite herbs to use for most squashes.

Bake in a normal conventional oven at 350 degrees for about an hour, or until your pumpkin is soft all the way through and starts to look like this:

You may have to adjust the amount of butter or baste halfway through baking depending on how dry the pumpkin looks.

After roasting, peel the pumpkin "meat" away from the tough skin and puree in batches using a food processor, vitamix, or strong blender. I add a little hot water or melted butter to the mixture if it looks like it needs a little push. You should have a velvety texture and a bright orange color when all is said and done. From here you can refrigerate your puree for up to two weeks or freeze to use all season long. I add a scoop to oatmeal, pancake batter or milkshakes or use in place of Libby's for all baking purposes. Stay tuned for the not-so-average pumpkin cupcakes that resulted from this beauty!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Rice Krispy Cake

Once you go homemade marshmallow you never go back. It's safe to say that I'm obsessed! Marshmallows are naturally gluten-free and fat free (definitely not sugar free, don't worry, no health lecture here...) and when made from scratch they are soft, chewy, melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I have a fire pit in my backyard now and I've been making my own marshmallows for s'mores and sweet snacks but now I'm taking over the rice krispy treat too. In cake form of course:

I learned from my catering days that no matter how simple the quick combination of rice cereal, marshmallows and butter may seem, the results please the highest number of people every time. I could not make rice krispy treats fast enough to keep up with our demand - and we fed them to mainly adults. But seriously, who doesn't love this sweet, gooey, crunchy treat?

This is my take on the classic favorite. I kept it simple, but added a lot more love than the usual read-off-the- box-microwavable version. This rice krispy cake is made from homemade vanilla bean marshmallows and a pinch of sea salt, sandwiched between layers of milk chocolate ganache and garnished with rainbow non-pareils to complete the nostalgic effect. 

The Rice Krispy Cake as pictured here would be a great centerpiece to a birthday party or any fun-loving gathering. The idea could also be applied to a wedding cake if regular cake isn't your jam, and it could be filled and decorated anyway you like. Rice Krispies can also easily be covered in fondant or frosting to look exactly like a traditional wedding cake if you're a bride who wants the dream cake look but wants to eat this one too.

This cake is a whole lot of tasty and sure to be loved by everyone in attendance at any event.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Friday Faves: October-ganza

I'm not sure when it happened, but we're already about to start the third week in October. Craziness. I've been busy at work between my pastry cook day job and some new wedding cake plans but I've managed to squeeze in lots of Fall activities for some inspiration in between:

Favorite October Activity: Apple Picking

I headed to Carter's Mountain Orchard last weekend outside of Charlottesville on a hunt for cider donuts and freshly plucked Jonagold's. I have big plans for apple sauce, apple butter and possibly some caramel apple cider cupcakes.

Favorite October Aroma: Roasting Butternut Squash

Last night I roasted a perfectly ready butternut squash with rosemary, sage and a libery apple. It made my whole house smell like Fall while it baked away for an hour. Now it's a puree that is destined to become a delicious soup. Don't worry- more on roasting squashes later, especially of the pumpkin variety.

Favorite October Breakfast: Blueberry Almond Steel Cut Oats

In keeping with the Fall foods theme, there's nothing like waking up to a warm and creamy bowl of steel cut oats made with almond milk, homemade summer blueberry jam and even a few chocolate chips.

Favorite October Flavor: Figs

I'm loving the figs that keep rolling in from late summer and this chocolate, olive oil and fig mini cake from Food Network Magazine looks amazing.

Favorite October Cake: Ghost Mallows

Such an original fall cake idea to stuff a cake with homemade ghost marshmallows complete with a little ghost family on top. I love the contrast of dark chocolate on white marshmallow, and how the figure can still be seen in each slice.

Happy October weekend, go outside and enjoy it!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

S'mores Cupcakes

In honor of the cooler weather, the return of Sunday football and campfires everywhere, I've been working on a new fall cake flavor. It's the perfect slice of heaven to brighten up your cozy evening at home on the couch, or add some flavor to your tailgate parties. The cake is a moist and delicious graham cracker pound cake that is designed to reflect the sweet and nutty flavor of Nabisco's classic grahams. It is stuffed full with a smooth and creamy dark chocolate ganache and topped with a toasted marshmallow frosting.

I went classic with the garnish and snapped off a piece of a Hershey's bar to place alongside a graham cracker. I usually prefer to 1) garnish with something either homemade or fresh and b) not use Hershey's chocolate in general but I made an exception for this one. Hershey's bars are just oh-so-s'mores-y, plus within the past year Hershey announced they are moving towards being fair trade which makes my certified chocolate loving heart very happy. 

But before I garnished, I toasted that gooey marshmallow frosting to give it an almost brǔleéd finish. 

And here's a shot of the chocolate lava center just in case you still needed convincing. I personally believe that s'mores don't taste as good unless you get them all over your face. The cupcake version is no exception!

Friday, September 20, 2013

Friday Faves

My weekends are a little different now that I'm officially living in Virginia for the next six months while I'm completing my externship for pastry school. Yesterday  was my "Monday" and I'll continue working all weekend as the restaurant life goes. But I'm more inspired than ever so I still wanted to take a moment and share a few of my favorite pictures from this week, that you can enjoy on your hopefully relaxing Friday. It's no big secret that I love Fall and all it's flavors, textures and cooler weather. So prepare yourself for a Fall overload now that it's actually here:

Favorite Fall Cake: Subtle vs. In your face Fall

I couldn't pick so here's two. I love how earthy but romantic the first one is because that's exactly how this season makes me feel. The second one would be a fun update on my caramel apple cider cake, or even my chocolate cinnamon pear cake.

Favorite Fall Cake Stand: Planter style

What a perfect way to recycle empty pots and planters now that the weather is cooling down. These would be great for a fall baby or bridal shower.

Favorite Colors: Autumn hues, what else.

Favorite View: White Oak Canyon, Va

I went hiking this week in Virginia for the first time in years and I'm just falling in love with this state all over again. Can't get enough of those beautiful baby blue mountains!

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Mini Cakes

My sister is getting married! And I simply cannot wait any longer to post about her cake. I'm so excited for it that the planning process has moved ahead very rapidly and very detailed (which is good considering I'm splitting the day of duties of MOH and cake decorator...) and I just have to share some of the exciting things we've been working on. My sister Cortney and her fiance Jack are quite the nerdy pair- in all of the best ways possible of course. In fact, she's reflecting their nerd love by having "bookish" elements sprinkled throughout the wedding that you can read about over on her blog. I was definitely on board for a scrabble cake, but we decided to go a slightly different route...

Another cool thing about my sister's wedding is that she is DIY-ing the heck out of it. She has a lot of projects in the works that aren't mine to spoil, but I will say that her wedding will be full of pretty fabrics, vintage finds and lots of personal touches. The cake will be no exception:

We know a few things for sure: 'the' cake will actually be many cakes, they will be mini, and they will be naked (yep, still talking about cake here). They're getting married June 2014 in Louisa, Va at Prospect Hill Plantation Inn which has gorgeous floral backdrops all on its own. We're not planning on adding many flowers, but the cake will probably be studded with a daisies and billy balls to bring out her wedding colors of yellow, gray and blue. I'm also hoping to incorporate some of her wedding ideas by using the fabric scraps to make a bunting decoration, and scouring antique stores to find the perfect step ladder to transform into a cake stand. You may remember that I recently became obsessed with the idea of using ladders to display desserts when I happened to cross this beauty. I'm planning on creating an entire dessert table of antique plates and platters with the step ladder being the center of attention. You can follow and see more of our ideas on the Pinterest board I made for them too.

It's been so fun really diving into this one and pulling out all of the stops. Because this cake is for my sister I can really go over the top and try some new things out. We're working hard and planning far ahead so it can all pay off when her day comes. Check back here to see how the progress is going!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Sundae Cake Truffles

I hate wasting anything. I've kept bottles of nail polish from 9th grade and I have to squeeze the toothpaste tube from the bottom in order to get every last bit out. I feel even more strongly about wasting cake because, well, it's cake. The absolute worst part of culinary school is how much good food we throw away each and every day- it makes me so sad! To solve my own cake wasting problem, I save any wedding cake scraps and freeze them right away so they'll stay fresh. Then down the road I can use them for things like bread pudding, crumb garnishes or cake croutons. I've made my stance on cake pops pretty clear before, but my feelings toward these decadent and pop-able cake truffles couldn't be more opposite. 

These are made from dark chocolate cake, homemade caramel sauce, sweetened coconut, chocolate ganache and cherry liquor. So basically, an ice cream sundae in one easy bite. 

They're rolled in cocoa powder and powdered sugar for a  rustic effect, but dipping them in dark chocolate would give them a little extra fancy for a more formal affair. The center is fudge-y and slightly gooey like a regular chocolate truffle. I could put away half a dozen of these bad boys without hardly batting an eye. They make great additions to gift boxes for wedding or bridal shower parties (package way easier than cake!) or they could even sit pretty on a dessert bar.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Faves

I'm headed into my last weekend here in Hyde Park, NY for a while as I'm gearing up to move back to Virginia for five whole months! Smack in the middle of my program here is the externship portion. Externship is basically an 18-week long on-the-job class. We apply to them from a long list of sites approved by the Culinary Institute, and then you're on your own to get one just like a job. I'm crazy excited to be heading back to my roots in VA and it's gotten me feeling so inspired lately about so many things:

Favorite cake stand: Antique-y

I love how the different edges and colors of the plates contrast, but still seem to just fit together. This dessert stand is just so pretty and sweet, just like some of my latest dessert bar items.

Favorite Birthday Cake: Sprinkles

I found this gem on Pinterest this week and fell in love. Such a clean design but still fun and creative for a birthday. I think the reverse would be awesome too, with the number in sprinkles and white around.

Favorite Cupcake: Caramel Apple Cider

I'm starting to get SO excited about my favorite food season of the year- Fall. These cupcakes were part of a fall flavors series that I wrote a few years ago, and they're still one of my favorites. It's an apple spice cake topped with fluffy cream cheese frosting and a whiskey caramel drizzle. 

Favorite Book: Cooked by Michael Pollan

I can't put this baby down. Michael Pollan makes me wish I had majored in Anthropology in college. The guy just gets it and he goes on the craziest adventures in the name of food. Definitely recommend!

Favorite View:

This is what my backyard currently looks like. When I move back to VA for externship I will definitely miss being this close to the Hudson river's beauty.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Petite Fours

Petite Fours means 'little oven' in French, and they are bite-sized desserts traditionally served with your check after dining in a restaurant as a thank you from the chef. Much like petite gateaux, petite fours come in all shapes and flavors, look spectacular on a dessert bar, and taste delicious. There are five main categories of petite fours: Sec (dry), Frais (fresh), Deguise (disguised), Glace (glazed) and Prestige (prestigious). What I love about petite fours is that there aren't many other rules besides size. They can be anything from cookies to fondant glazed cake layers - just as long as they're pretty and bite-sized!

A few traditional types of petite fours that you can see in this picture are bi-colored macaroons that we filled with mango milk chocolate ganache, canneles (little cakes with a crispy crust but custard-y inside), coconut macarons, financiers, florentines and mondiants (chocolate drops with dried fruit and nuts). Among other things in my Individual Production Pastry class where we made all of these goodies, I learned that it is literally impossible for me to pronounce anything in "french" without an over the top Pepe le Pew accent. Oui Chef.

I'm especially a huge fan of homemade marshmallows. To give you an idea of the difference between a homemade marshmallow and a store bought jet-puffed one...I will only touch the store bought ones if they are toasted, in-between two grahams and smothered in chocolate. Homemade marshmallows, on the other hand, I want to cuddle up with and take a soft, pillow-y delicious nap on (what's even better about making marshmallows homemade, is that alcohol doesn't affect the structure formation of gelatin so you can have boozy 'mallows too ;-). They make great wedding favors, centerpiece fillers, or s'mores bar additions.

Petite Fours are a fancy little way to impress your guests and make them feel immediately special for being invited, without having to break the bank or go over the top.