July 29, 2012

a year in cake

I started making cakes about a year ago. It all started with me trying to recreate the Chinese bakery birthday cakes from my childhood. I remembered the combination of airy sponge, whipped cream and fresh fruit, and set to work with the recipes I found in my textbook.

For the cake part I chose chiffon sponge, since it's the airiest, and for cream I chose Italian buttercream. For filling and garnish I used fresh strawberries, kiwis and canned peaches. Since I didn't have a kitchenaid it was hard to make the sponge fluffy (a lot of beating involved) and Italian buttercream was basically impossible. I managed to salvage enough of my attempt involving a sunbeam stand mixer to assemble something for my roommate Tram's going away send-off.

Even though the cake wasn't anything like what I had in mind, at least it tasted well enough to be eaten.


Later, for my sister Iris's graduation I made a second attempt. This time instead of Italian buttercream I used whipped cream. The chiffon sponge and fresh fruit I kept the same, with the addition of fresh cherries we picked. As you can tell from the picture I didn't frost the cake very well. So as a result it looked more like a stack of fat pancakes.

Also, since our family wasn't going to be able to get together for my mom's birthday a few weeks later, my sister decided to dedicate the cake to my mom.


Later that summer I made the first cake I was proud of. My success had a lot to do with dumbing down the ingredients. Instead of a fancy sponge, I made the chocolate cake I had learned way before culinary school. Instead of making whipped cream, I bought the cool whip kind. This made the cake a lot easier to frost. For filling and decoration I used fresh strawberries. What was special about this cake was that I used chocolate writing for the first time, melting chocolate chips in oil in the microwave and pouring it into a parchment paper cone like how I learned in school.


Having accomplished a proper cake, I started to get fancy. For a friend's birthday in the fall I made a three-layer cake for the first time. The top and bottom layers were chocolate but the middle was dos leches (like tres leches except with only condensed milk and evaporated milk, no half and half). Between the layers I put raspberry whipped cream, which is just raspberries pureed into cool whip.

On the outside I put raspberries, chocolate chips, crushed chinese almonds and shaved mexican chocolate. It was delicious.


But I never forgot my dream of recreating a Chinese birthday cake. I tried again, this time with vanilla sponge and cool whip. The vanilla sponge was crumby and dry (due to the use of butter instead of oil). But the arrangement of fruit was really beautiful.


Finally, after finding this blogger's recipe for Chinese sponge, I was able to recreate the Chinese birthday cake of my childhood. This was made for my sister Iris's birthday. Besides the sponge and whipped cream, I also made a triple berry mousse filling (using frozen berries). Both the sponge and mousse were beaten by hand, which meant that my arm almost fell off but it was worth it.

In keeping with the berry theme, I put sliced strawberries (and crushed almonds) on the side of the cake, and on top I put blackberries and strawberry roses (which I learned to cut in Garde Manger). Then I even wrote with chocolate in Chinese. I considered this my best cake ever.


For my youngest sister Jenny's birthday this spring, I decided to make a mousse cake, since I had just learned how to make mousse cake in Advanced Baking. Inspired by the fact that Jenny loves to drink boba/pearl milk tea, I made soaked the sponge layers in earl grey tea simple syrup. I made the mousse a strawberry one and inaugurated my new springform pan in the process.

Cooked some tapioca pearls and stuck them on top, although I learned that I should have done them at the last minute because the pearls harden once refrigerated. Also I decorated the top with marshmallows and chocolate truffles I made in class, plus honey sticks to simulate straws.

It was a creative cake, but the mousse could have been better done. Next time I need to get my hands on some acetate tape to line the pan - I used plastic wrap and it made the mousse edges jaggedy.


My most recent birthday cake was for my mom, inspired by the fact that she loves coconut, and last time I had lunch at her house we had pineapple for dessert.

Again, chinese sponge, but soaked with pineapple simple syrup. The middle was supposed to be coconut milk angel food cake, but I didn't remember until after that any trace of fat (as in coconut milk) ruins the meringue integral to angel food cake. What I should have done was make the angel food cake and then soak it with coconut milk. I baked the batter anyway, and it turned out flat and chewy, but not unlike Vietnamese honeycomb cake, so it wasn't all bad.

For filling and for topping I had whipped cream and cooked pineapple cut into triangle shapes. The sides were decorated with shredded coconut and crushed macadamia nut. As a bonus, since the "angel food cake" had a hole in the middle, I decided to stick the pineapple greens through, which made the cake look dramatic and unique. Mom loved it.


According to Iris, my mom brags about my cakes to random people. It's really cute.

I love making cakes because they symbolize celebration, and almost always imply people coming together to share. Although I've only been making cakes for a year, I can see myself making cakes and sharing them for the rest of my life.

July 15, 2012

summer barbecue

4th of July was rather atraditional for me this year. I came back from Mexico around midnight, worked during the day, then mustered up some energy to have dinner with family. We ended up having Korean BBQ, which, although somewhat fitting for the holiday, made me still crave barbecue.

So a week later, Cris and I put on a barbecue dinner. We started with ribs, which I have a little experience with. First we dry rubbed the racks with spices - smoked paprika, cayenne, cumin, oregano, garlic powder, brown sugar. Then they're wrapped with aluminum foil and placed in the oven. First at 375F, so the oven can be used for other things, but then at 250F. Low heat means you can leave them there without worrying, but also because they get tender that way.

dry rubbed ribs

We had potatoes, so they got cut into wedges and coated in basically the same dry rub, except rosemary instead of oregano, and then there's the addition of olive oil. The wedges are laid on a sheet tray and baked until fork tender. (Next time I'll omit the sugar from the potato rub, since sweetness with potato is a little strange to me!)

While the wedges were baking I made some sour cream dip. Instead of regular sour cream I used Mexican crema, because I find it to be more savory than sour cream. Maybe there's some salt, lime, or non-pasteurization, or... higher fat content? In any case, I added minced shallot, garlic, parsley, basil, lemon, salt and pepper. You can substitute to your liking, since the ingredients I used happened to be the ones I was using for mac and cheese. The dip makes for a nice contrast to the spice-laden potato wedges.

potato wedges

Next up, cornbread! I used this recipe but it's nothing to write home about. I did substitute honey for sugar, crema for sour cream and bacon grease for butter. Oh and I added some jalapenos.

cornbread ingredients

Then I randomly got the idea to do a cornflake "streusel" on top. It was just cornflakes, honey, bits of bacon and bacon grease. Nice and crunchy addition to the cornbread.

cornflake "streusel"

Originally I wasn't going to do mac and cheese, because I didn't want too much starch, but I ran into this Luscious-but-Light Summertime Mac n' Cheese recipe and it sounded so intriguingly delicious that I just had to try. The cheeses I used were aged gouda, jalapeno havarti and honey goat cheese. And it turned out delicious, just as promised. My only regret was not having sliced almonds - I crushed whole smoked almonds instead and they weren't very crunchy.

herbs in mac & cheese

Lastly for some greens I did tomato salad, with the herbs and honey goat cheese leftover from the mac and cheese. Because we didn't have mustard for a vinaigrette, Cris made a warm hollandaise. But that sauce is really high maintenance, so next time I'd do another vinaigrette.

tomato salad

All of this prep and some down time later (three hours), the first rack of ribs came out, nice and tender. The second rack stayed in for another hour, after which the meat was literally fall-off-the-bone. I recommend Everett & Jones barbecue sauce (available at Luckys) because it's smoky, savory and sweet. Spicy too, if you want it.

roasted ribs

And there you have it, a summer barbecue dinner and no grill necessary!

my plate

July 7, 2012

lunch box mission

My mom's birthday took place while I was in Oaxaca, so before my trip I brainstormed gifts that would be practical, enjoyable, and last through her birthday.

Given that my mom works for the post office and sometimes pulls 12-14 hour shifts, she seldom cooks and usually just cobbles meals together. I thought it would be convenient if she had ready-to-eat meals she could take to work, so from there the lunch box mission was born.

One day, when Cris and I were at her house, we hung out until after she left for work. Then we scoured the fridge for any and all ingredients we could use. Turns out my mom had a boatload of vegetables, as well as masses of unidentifiable proteins in her freezer. Lots of chopping and defrosting commenced.

lunch box prep

After a good three hours of prepping and cooking, we had over a dozen dishes ready. For starches we had rice (with corn), fried rice, ramen noodles, spaghetti and rice flour buns.

lunch box starches

For proteins/sides we had sweet & sour shrimp, sauteed green beans (with fish balls & another with meat), moo shu vegetables, chinese "fajita" stir-fry, dumplings, leftover barbecue & chili from lunch, etc. Impressive just how much we were able to make without even a trip to the supermarket.

lunch box sides

We filled all of my newly purchased tupperware boxes one by one, each with a starch and several sides. I made sure that no two boxes were alike so Mom wouldn't get bored of eating them.

first lunch boxes

Also, as a bonus, we made fruit salad and filled several boxes with just that, so she could take them on the days she felt like having dessert.

By the end of everything, we had a veritable mountain of lunch boxes. Enough to last my mom a month!

lunch box mountain

It was tricky getting all of the boxes to fit in the freezer but we did it!

lunch boxes in freezer

According to my sister, my mom loved her lunch boxes and ate one almost every day. That's what I call a mission accomplished!

lunch box mission accomplished

Note: It was funny, my mom didn't discover the surprise until a week later! She just kept wondering who stole her vegetables or how they might have disappeared...