Tuesday, October 7, 2014

The Ups and Downs of Cake Design

Managing expectations. That is what it all comes down to. Making sure you (the cake designer) and the client are on the same page. Making sure they know that they brought you pictures of an $800.00 cake but only want to spend $200.00, and that they will not be getting what is in the picture. Making sure that when the customer doesn't give you any pictures at all, and say they trust you to make their vision a reality, that you know exactly what their vision is. Making sure that you ask every single question you can possibly think of to make sure the customer will be happy with their cake.

A few weeks ago, I had my first unhappy customer. It has taken me a little while to stop stewing over it, but now I realize that the customer wasn't unhappy because I made an ugly cake. The customer was unhappy because I (and by 'I', I mean the bakery I work at) couldn't read her mind. She had trouble putting into words what she actually wanted, and we failed in response by not laying out an exact plan prior to making her cake. We were not on the same page, and as a result, we lost money and, more importantly, we lost a customer. As a team, we learned a lot from this cake. We learned we need to manage our customers expectations better. We need to ask more questions, provide clear sketches, gather pictures, and there needs to be more communication between the sales team and the design team.

This is all a new adjustment for me. Up until now, I have been making cakes directly for clients as a freelancer. Mostly for people I know, or through people I know. Even at the restaurant, I was dealing directly with the clients for consults and was not only able to hear what they wanted and discuss options, but to read their facial cues and hear the emotion in their voices. Now, I am detached a bit from the process since the cake consults go through our sales team. I realize that it would be impossible for myself or my fellow cake designer to meet with every client that we have at the bakery, that is a full time job, but it adds a whole new aspect to the execution of a cake.

So, when I get a chance to design a cake for someone I know and someone who trusts me, I jump at it. For this cake, I got a color scheme and no expectations. I was free to do whatever I wanted, and that is something I find I will miss working for someone else. I had been wanting to try making dahlias out of gum paste for a while now, so that is what I did. Maybe I need to learn how to manage my own expectations as well. Until I have my own shop, my own business, this is how the game goes. I don't want this to sound like I am complaining, because I am not. I get to make cakes all day, every day. Some of them I get to help design, some of them I don't, but either way it is definitely where I want to be.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Short Rib Bucatini

Anything after labor day is fall, right? I don't care that it was 82 degrees in Chicago today. I don't even care that the leaves are still bright green on the trees, and the beaches are still full of people. I've got the fall itch, and while you won't see me standing in line at Starbucks for a pumpkin spice latte, you will catch me in the kitchen braising something.

Up until now, I have only made my short ribs one way. A very good way, mind you, but I was in a rut and it was time to branch out. I am sure I will find myself braising some short ribs in red wine and beef stock at some point this winter, but for now, this version suits this summer-ish fall season just fine. Plus, it let me use the last of my fresh basil from my teeny tiny herb 'garden' that I have somehow managed not to kill this summer. (By 'garden' I mean two window boxes hanging from my deck rail.)

Short Rib Bucatini
recipe adapted from Food & Wine

4 tbl olive oil
3 pounds bone-in beef short ribs
kosher salt
fresh ground pepper
1 large vidalia onion, chopped finely
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbl tomato paste
2 - 28 oz. cans whole peeled San Marzano tomatoes
1 medium carrot, peeled and roughly chopped
2 bay leaves
1 pound dried bucatini
fresh basil and grated parmesan cheese for garnish

Heat olive oil in a large enameled cast iron pot over medium high heat. Season all sides of the short ribs generously with salt and pepper. When oil is hot, brown all sides of each piece of short rib, about 2-3 minutes on each side. Remove short ribs to a plate and set aside. Pour all but two tablespoons of fat our of the pot, and return to medium-low heat.

Add the onions, and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and gently browned, about 12-15 minutes. Add the tomato paste and garlic and cook for about 2-3 minutes, string constantly. Add the tomatoes and gently mash as you are stirring them in. Add carrots, bay leaves, and a generous pinch of salt and bring to a simmer. Place short ribs and all the juices that may have accumulated back into pot and turn heat to the lowest setting. Cover loosely and simmer gently for about 4 hours, until meat it tender and is falling off the bone. Stir occasionally to turn short ribs and to monitor any scorching that may occur in the bottom of the pan. When meat is cooked, remove to cutting board, and discard the bones and any excess fat and connective tissue. You can either chop the meat into small pieces or gently pull the chunks apart with two forks.

Remove the bay leaves from the tomato sauce and carefully transfer to a food processor and pulse until pureed. Alternatively, you can leave the sauce in the pot and use a immersion blender, or you can leave the sauce chunky as is. Return sauce to pan over low heat, and return short rib meat to sauce. Season to taste with salt and pepper and hold over low heat.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the bucatini until just al dente, then drain, and add the pasta into the sauce. Simmer the pasta in the sauce for 2-3 minutes, adding some reserved pasta water if you find it is too thick.

Chiffonade a few leaves of fresh basil and grate some parmesan cheese to garnish.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Turning 30 & Banana Bundt Cake

30 is my year. This is the year that things get good. They get organized, they get balanced, and they get happy. This is the year I complete a olympic length triathlon. This is the year I finally go through the box that I dumped my college apartment desk contents into and didn't touch for seven years. This is the year I switch my career path back onto the trajectory where it belongs. This is the year I stand up for myself and leave a job that was taking over my life, and not giving much back in return. This is the year I get to say yes to taking a weekend off here and there to just be with friends, or visit a new city. This is the year I am no longer embarrassed about the state of my apartment. This is the year I start running long distances because I (almost) enjoy it. This is the year I start baking again for pleasure, and not just for work.

I am a few months into my 30's and instead of freaking out a little bit when the milestone came, as many people do, I decided a few years ago that 30 wasn't going to be scary to me. I always thought that your 30's were the time you finally had your shit together (excuse my french). It is the decade where you finally get into your groove, really start to know who you are and where you want to be. When I turned 30, I realized that I wasn't really at that place in my life yet, and as it turns out, it isn't your age that puts you in that place, it has to come from somewhere else. So I am doing something about it. It isn't all life-changing, world-altering changes, like quitting a job, or traveling across the globe. Even the little things, like buying one of those 7-day pill containers and actually taking my vitamins and aspirin everyday, can make a big difference in the peace and contentment in every day life. Instead of always thinking about all the things I should be doing better, I am making it my goal this year to simply do them.

This bundt cake was the first time in way too long that I baked something that wasn't for work, or for a personal client. It was for a friend, for his birthday, for a weekend at a lake house that I missed out on last summer. It was simple but delicious, and reminded me why I do what I do. Providing someone with something delicious, nourishing, and specially made just for them, is something I had forgotten I missed.

Banana Walnut Bundt Cake
recipe adapted from the food librarian
makes one large bundt cake

3 cups flour
2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
8 oz butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
4 ripe bananas
1 cup yogurt
1 cup toasted, chopped walnuts, divided

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping the bowl well between each addition. Mix in the vanilla and bananas. In a separate bowl combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add 1/3 of the flour mixture to the banana mixture, followed by 1/2 of the yogurt. Scrape the bowl very well between each addition. Mix in another 1/3 of the flour, then the second half of the yogurt, followed by the rest of the flour mixture. Fold in 3/4 cups of the walnuts. Butter and flour a bundt pan or spray with baking spray. Pour batter into pan and bake at 350 for 65-75 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center comes out clean. Be sure not to put a baking sheet under the bundt pan, as the hot air needs to circulate through center of the pan. 

Let cake cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and let cool completely. Wrap in plastic and let sit at room temperature overnight, or freeze until ready to use. 

For the glaze: combine 1 cup of powdered sugar with 2 tablespoons milk and 1/2 tsp vanilla and whisk until smooth. Pour glaze over the top of the bundt cake and immediately sprinkle on the remaining walnuts. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Ranunculus and Succulents...say that ten times fast.

I keep calling it spring. Even though I know it is officially summer, I just cannot seem to get it through my head. Spring has once again flown by without notice, and all of the sudden it is 85 degrees and sunny everyday. Well, almost every day. Usually on my days off from work it rains, so there's that.

Cake season is in full swing, and I have been cranking out wedding cakes at the restaurant like it's my job. Because it is my job, or was my job I suppose. I finished up the last wedding cake I will be doing at the restaurant this past weekend, after some hard decisions were made. I have been pushing and pushing for the last year to keep wedding cakes on the table as an option for our events, because it truly is the favorite part of my job. I learned, however, in this past year that plating desserts and charcuterie boards for service while trying to do watercolor work on a 4 tiered cake or attaching 50 tiny little gum paste petals to a sugar flower, is near impossible. I wasn't achieving the quality of work on my cakes that I know I am capable of, and that is a big disappointment.

So, for now, it's back to regular service at the restaurant, and the wedding cakes will move back into my own personal kitchen for the time being. I have taken for granted how much easier it is to bang out a four tiered cake when you have a large mixer and lots of full size sheet pans. For the next week and a half, it is back to baking at the apartment for a 4th of July wedding in Wisconsin.

These two cakes were by far my favorite from this spring's wedding season. The clients on both of these expressed that they loved my cakes and pretty much let me do whatever I wanted, with a bit of inspiration direction. I was able to push out of my comfort zone a bit, doing gum paste flowers that I hadn't attempted before including the ranunculus, and succulents. I also took my first swing at watercoloring an entire cake. There is something truly terrifying and incredibly awesome about taking a blue soaked paintbrush to a perfectly white, fondant-covered cake 3 hours before the start of a wedding. It wasn't perfect, but I learned a lot in the process and hope that I get a chance to do it again soon.

So, happy summer to all, I for one can't wait to see what this season has in store. Changes, growth, and more new challenges, or perhaps just more rain on my off days. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Cakes for Dudes

Tomorrow, the man in my life turns the big 3-0. This has its pros and cons. Pro: cake. Con: my big 3-0 is not far behind. But lets focus on the the positives shall we?

Turning thirty is supposed to be such a big scary thing. I make jokes a lot about it, and tease him endlessly since he is hitting the milestone before I am, but deep down I don't think either of us really care all that much. Plus, we all become mature, responsible adults when we turn thirty right? Right?? All jokes aside, we aren't big birthday celebrators in the first place, so we tend to keep things pretty low key.

I have learned that it is pretty much impossible to make a surprise cake for someone you live with. I have also learned that when you make a cake for someones birthday without having a party or a bunch of people over, the majority of the cake goes untouched in the refrigerator until it ends up in the garbage. So, I am going to forgo the cake this year (sorry Steve) and hope that the pistachio gelato and half eaten shamrock shake in the freezer will suffice.

I have made quite a few cakes in my day, and lets face it, they were pretty much all for the ladies. Even the wedding cakes I have done, though they were for a couple's celebration, it was mostly the bride that cared about the look of the cake (I find the grooms tend to only care about what is inside the cake).

Obviously there are exceptions to this, but it is always a bit tricky when asked to make a cake for an adult male. It is easy to make a pretty pattern, throw some frilly gumpaste flowers on a cake for any occasion, but that is typically seen as being 'girly', and that usually doesn't fly for the guys.

So what's a girl to do? Beer, baseball, and totally neutral colors and shapes, that's what! Yay gender roles! Actually in full disclosure, the baseball cake turned out to be for a woman, which I didn't find out until the party started and totally made me happy. I also felt guilty for just assuming it was for a man. In general, I am finding it easier to break my habits of always making 'feminine' cakes. Using darker, bolder colors, utilizing more geometric patterns and shapes, bold writing and designs, and generally staying away from flowers seem to be some basic stepping stones for creating a more masculine cake.

Making it look and taste like beer always helps.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Wedding and a Baby

Before you get too excited (MOM), neither the wedding nor the baby are mine. I was however, lucky enough to be a part of both my cousin's wedding day, and my boss's baby shower. My participation in both these events was my favorite kind of participation, I was asked to make the cakes. I think one of the best parts of doing freelance baking is that you are often providing a service for a friend, a member of the family, or a friend of a friend or family member (it is all about 3 degrees of separation here). With this familiarity tends to come an immense amount of freedom. Many of my 'clients' know me, know what I can do with some cake and a bowl of buttercream, and they tend to put a lot of trust in my designs and decision making.

It can be such a contrast from working with complete strangers (at the restaurant) who hand me a picture and say 'I want this cake'. I have a big ethical problem with copying cakes. Unless it is a very generic plain buttercream cake, say with some texture, or plain fondant with ribbons on the bottom like every other wedding cake these days, I won't make a copy, I just won't do it. I will give you a cake that is inspired by your picture, has all the elements you want, and in the end, is hopefully better than what your were expecting in the first place.

I think that designing and creating cakes can be an art form, and plagiarism ethics should apply. In the age of pinterest and blogs and instagram, I realize that this isn't exactly feasible, to expect people not to copy your designs while trying promoting yourself through pictures and tutorials in these same outlets. So, in my personal credo as an 'artist' (and I do use that term loosely) I pledge not to steal other people's work. I DO pledge to be inspired by, learn from, and give credit to the cake artists that I admire and follow.

So, when I get an order for a cake with very minimal requests, and the client says 'just do whatever you want, I trust you', there's a feeling of excitement and perhaps a little bit of anxiety. Both of the events pictured here were for very, VERY trusting people.

A fall themed wedding with golds, reds, pinks, and browns, and a joint baby shower for two sisters having babies just a few weeks apart. The wedding for my cousin was discussed over email from a few states away, and she put her trust in my to execute her ideas and make the trip up to Minnesota for her wedding, without even talking to me in person. For the baby shower, my boss's wife handed me her shower invitations and said 'do whatever you want, all I care about is chocolate'.

This is why I do what I do. The daily grind of production and working the line at the restaurant is a great, stable job, but the creating I get to do in the background is the icing on the cake.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

A Jump on Autumn

One bonus of working in a professional kitchen, is that I get to have a jump on the seasons. I get a head start on fall baking in early September, start playing around with winter spices in November, and experiment with bright winter citrus in December. We are rolling out a new fall inspired menu at the restaurant in the next week and I could not be more excited. Does this early run on autumnal goodies mean I will hit burn out on fall flavors by November?

Fall is my favorite season, and the food that comes with it is second to none. Even better than fall baking, is fall cooking, and while I am up to my ears in cinnamon, pumpkin and apples at work, at home I am diving head first into slow braised meats, stews and soups, and some serious comfort food. This week I made my first big 'ol pot of chili of the year. Chock full of hearty ingredients, warm spices, and healthy lean ground turkey, this is one soup to keep on rotation. Roasted sweet potatoes, black beluga lentils, white cannelini beans, crunchy corn and yellow bell peppers all add to the complexity and texture. Cumin, coriander, ginger, smoked chipotle chili powder add to the depth of flavor and slow subtle heat. If you are looking to change up your usual chili recipe, this is it.

Autumn Chili with Beluga Lentils, Roasted Sweet Potatoes, and Turkey

2-3 lbs ground turkey,
3 teaspoons paprika
1/4 cup AP flour 
1/2 cup olive oil 
1 large vidalia onion, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 large green jalepeno, diced (remove seeds if you want it a little less spicy)
1/4 cup tomato paste
4 tablespoons chili powder
2 tablespoons smoked chipotle chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatos
2 cups white wine
8 cups chicken stock
4 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and diced small
2 cans canellini beans
2 cups black beluga lentils
2 small cans corn
2 bell peppers (red, yellow or orange are my preference), diced
1/2 cup parsley leaves, minced
greek yogurt and more chopped parsley to garnish
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss diced sweet potatoes with 1/4 cup olive oil and season generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 30-40 minutes, tossing periodically until starting to caramelize. Set aside. 

Meanwhile, heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a large heavy bottom pot, such as a dutch oven, over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add turkey and cook until cooked through and starting to brown. Add the onions and garlic and cook until softened and starting to caramelize, about 5-7 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the turkey and cook for a minute or two, stirring constantly to cook off a bit of the raw flour taste. Add the jalepenos and saute another 2-3 minutes, until softened.

Add the tomato paste, chili powders, cumin, coriander, ginger, and stir to combine. Add the wine, bring to a simmer, then add the chicken stock and tomatoes. Stir to combine, then bring to a boil and add the lentils. Reduce heat, and simmer for 30-45 minutes, until lentils are starting to get tender.

Add the beans, corn, bell peppers, and sweet potatoes. Bring back to a boil and simmer for 15-20 minutes, until veggies are tender. Stir in parsley and serve immediately topped with greek yogurt and more parsley. This also freezes wonderfully.


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