Thursday, February 17

Recipe Review: Slow-Cooker Baked Potato Bar

This is as easy as it gets, y'all! Forgive the off-color picture - it's from my phone.

My favorite: salsa, chopped ham, light sour cream, and onions.

I never make baked potatoes. Generally if I'm going to the trouble to heat up the oven I expect something gooey and chocolate-laden to come out of it. So I was intrigued when I saw a post on slow-cooker baked potatoes on one of my favorite recipe sites. A Year of Slow Cooking is a blog written by a daring lady who cooked a dish in her crock pot every day for a year while blogging about it. Not all the recipes I've tried have turned out perfectly, but they've all been easy and some have been fantastic. Click here to see the post.

This is an incredibly simple and cheap way to cook for a crowd or just your family. Since this was my week to provide dinner for our church homegroup I decided to try a baked potato bar instead of picking up pizza or subs. It costs less than fast food and takes just a little more planning.

The steps are simple:
1. Wash the potatoes - for maximum ease soak them all in the sink, scrub, and lay out to dry on towels
2. Prick each several times with a fork and wrap in foil. Place in your slow cooker. 17 potatoes completely filled my 6-quart and 2-quart cookers (I fit about 12 in the 6-quart and 5 in the 2-quart).
3. Cook on low for 10 hours or on high for 6 hours (both the big and small pots cooked evenly).
4. Serve with toppings. I chose diced ham, which I browned in a skillet, green onions, shredded cheese, salsa, light sour cream, and of course, butter, salt, and pepper.

They were delicious and we all had fun. We ended up with a lot of leftovers, but we've found they reheat beautifully in the crock pot as well. Michael set two of them, still in their foil jackets, in the 2-quart crock pot to reheat on low for about an hour and they were as good as new.

There are serious advantages to this method versus baking. Having the potatoes ready when you come home is much better than lurking outside the oven and checking them for doneness so often that it takes twice the suggested cooking time (not that I do that). Honestly, the thing most likely to hinder me from baking anything is the dread of digging through the way-too-crowded pan drawer below my oven. I hate it! I grumble and groan because the pan I need is always mysteriously at the bottom of the pile. Bah! Fortunately my slow cooker is more easily accessible. And with this method the only cleanup required is rinsing out the crock when you're done. I also love that the crock pot keeps dinner warm until we're ready to eat it. Just be sure to have tongs handy for fishing out the hot potatoes!

Saturday, February 12

Jungle Cake: Lions, Monkeys, and Elephants - Oh My!

Woah. Do you see that picture? I made that.

No, I haven't been hiding secret cake-ninja skills from everyone. This was my first fondant cake. Lest you think I'm talented enough to whip this kind of thing up in a single afternoon check out the schedule of work it involved. It took a solid week of planning, researching techniques, and reckless experimentation to make this cake. And I'm so proud of it!! :)

I've mentioned my boss, friend, and cake expert Erin before. She happens to be great with child and when I saw the jungle theme on her baby shower invitations I just knew I had to make this cake for her. I'd been looking at some inspiration pictures at and fell in love with this design.

I knew it would be a huge undertaking for me because I'd never covered a cake with fondant, never made gumpaste figures, never made a stacked cake that I actually served to anyone, etc. But, with some serious help from, I learned to do all that and more. I'd also learned some major lessons from my wedding cake project: it really is important to refrigerate the cakes before decorating them, I don't like using thin wooden dowels, working with totally flat layers is really important, etc. MyCakeSchool is a website that requires a $30 subscription, but hosts a huge range of video tutorials, recipes, inspiration photos, and practical advice. Most cake books cost more than $30, so I think it's a great value. Even if you're not a die-hard baker I'd recommend her blog, which is free and is full of adorable ideas.

Since the gumpaste animals can't spoil or go stale I decided to start them a week before the shower. In fact, these little figures are sitting on baby Zeke's nursery shelf now and can stay there as long as he wants them. I have a bad habit of thinking I know how to do something until it comes time to actually do it (when I realize I have no idea what I'm doing!). So I was incredibly fortunate to find that Melissa at has video tutorials on how to make gumpaste lions, monkeys, and elephants. Thank goodness!

So, I spent the first two nights of this endeavor making the animals. In case you're not familiar with gumpaste, it's like fondant, but more rigid and dries harder. I followed the instructions to form my animals on lollipop sticks for bases. They turned out way better than I expected, but took for-ev-er! In Melissa's videos she takes about 10 minutes to make one animal from start to finish. It took me about 2 hours for each one!

Once my figures were finished it was time to get baking! Since it was a boy cake I wanted to stay away from delicate, fruity flavors and go for something bold instead. So, I browsed MyCakeSchool's selection of recipes and decided on sour cream chocolate cake with peanut butter-chocolate chip filling and chocolate buttercream frosting. YUM!

Since I like the look of an extra-wide bottom tier I chose to use 10-inch and 6-inch pans. The process was just like it was for the wedding cake, except I used different recipes to fill and frost the cake.

Once I'd filled and frosted my layers, I coated them with a thin layer of Italian buttercream. This was a tip from Erin's husband and cake assistant, Brad. The white frosting kept the chocolate from showing through the light fondant and also kept me from smudging brown fingerprints on everything.

At this point, my tiers were ready to be covered in fondant, decorated, and stacked. I'll be back with those steps soon! But what do you think so far?

Wedding Cake Part 4: Decorating!

You would think that decorating the cake would be the best part of the process, right? But by the time I'd baked the layers, made the frosting, trimmed and filled the layers, and frosted and stacked the tiers, I had a little cake fatigue. I also had a lot of real-life things come up right after assembling the cake, so I didn't even try decorating it for another week. By that time, the cake had shifted and looked pretty pathetically crooked!

The straight side
The almost-disaster side!

My original plan was to try out a bunch of different designs on the blank canvas of my cake, but since it looked like it would be in a puddle on the floor at any moment (remember, I didn't use the long dowel to secure my tiers together), I just tried to mimic one of the inspiration pictures Beta sent me. This design works on fondant or buttercream cakes, although it probably looks best with the clean lines of a fondant cake. It's also simple enough to be practical for the wedding (I won't have weeks to work on it then). If I make this design I'll definitely want to mimic the alternating taller tiers and staggered widths for structural interest.

I love Martha Stewart cakes!

The first step was coloring the fondant. Because it's very rigid when cool, kneading the fondant is necessary before adding food coloring. Gel icing colors are recommended (not the liquid droppers you get from the grocery store) because they blend better and maintain the consistency of the fondant. This stuff is very powerful, so it's important to add it a little bit at a time. I put on gloves (necessary unless you like the look of tie-dyed skin), dipped a toothpick in the coloring, smeared a bit on the fondant, kneaded, and continued adding color until it was right. Since fondant hardens quickly and becomes crumbly, it's important to keep it in a sealed container as much as possible. It's also good to know that the color often intesifies over time, so it's best to err on the side of caution. I definitely over-colored my ribbons this time.


A smooth stone countertop or metal table is ideal for rolling out and cutting fondant, but since I have neither I had to be creative. My mother-in-law, Karen, who's thinking about turning baking into business, read that a piece of vinyl from a hardware store works well as a surface for rolling fondant. So I took Michael to Lowe's (turns out he didn't know where to look for this any better than I did) and we found ourselves in the tub and tile section. We ended up buying a sheet of PVC that is sold as tub liner. I don't know if this is what was intended by the recommendation, but it's thick enough to cut against without ruining my table, flexible enough to roll up in my suitcase, and can be cut to size. I planned to get a piece about 2 1/2 feet square, but decided to get a sheet almost as big as my table top. This way I have a big work space that's easily cleared away, and I can always buy a smaller piece if I want one.

Because it takes a lot of pressure to roll out fondant, I was worried that any grit between the PVC and my table would leave scratch marks. Also, the PVC would easily slip around against a slick surface. So I folded an old sheet beneath it. After cleaning the PVC well I spread it over the sheet for an excellent workspace. 

Since I wanted long, thin ribbons, I did what anyone who graduated kindergarten would do and made a long, blue snake of fondant. I then used a rolling pin to flatten it until it was about 1/4-inch thick. Using a fondant tool called a ribbon cutter, I cut two adjacent long strips of fondant.

Straight lines are easy with a ribbon cutter.

The white stuff is cornstarch.

Once I had a few ribbons I placed them haphazardly on the cake. This was surprisingly easy and would have been a total snap if my cake had been refrigerated since the ribbons sank a little into the warm icing.

I continued placing ribbons until I had 3 or 4 of each color on the cake. While I was doing this, it occurred to me that I was creating a messy top. I'm still not sure how to handle this. I think the best way is probably to use super long ribbons that cross the top and eliminate the problem of stray ends. If that doesn't work I could also put a solid blue "cap" of fondant on the cake.

At this point it was time to make the bows, which kind of make the cake. Unfortunately, I had no luck with this, mostly because I was running out of time (I had an exciting project, which I'll share very soon!) and table space. There are lots of instructions online for making elaborate loopy bows, but I have yet to find instructions for bows as simple as these. In case you're wondering, tying it like shoestrings just makes the fondant tear. The two things that gave me trouble were attaching the pieces together securely without smushing them and allowing them to dry without letting them fall flat. Fortunately, I have four-and-a-half months to figure it out or choose a different design. : )

Be on the look-out for more wedding cake practice. But most of it will happen on cake dummies - either syrofoam shapes or inverted pans, instead of another 20-pound (I weighed it) leaning tower of cake.

Is there a cake design you love?  Send it to me!  I'm looking for inspiration!

Monday, February 7

Wedding Cake Part 3: Frosting and Stacking the Tiers

When I finished my last wedding cake post I had baked the cake, made the frosting, and filled the layers. My next order of business was frosting and stacking the tiers.

First, I spread a thin layer of frosting on the outside of each tier. This layer doesn't need to be pretty, but it should be smooth. This is called crumbcoating - it creates a crumb-free surface for frosting the cake. After crumbcoating each layer, I put it in the refrigerator to chill.

My first crumbcoated tier

Since this cake was just for practice I saved time by filling and crumbcoating my tiers with store-bought frosting, but the outer frosting layer was Swiss Buttercream.The high butter content of this frosting makes it smooth enough to spread easily, but also hold its shape well, especially when cold. I never thought I could achieve a pretty, smooth surface with buttercream alone (I planned to cover it with fondant), but I discovered that a good buttercream practically smoothes itself.

Spreading frosting over the crumbcoat

The frosting surface will never be perfectly smooth, but there are a few techniques you can use to get close. One is hot-knifing, in which you warm your spatula in hot water, dry it, and quickly smooth your frosted tiers. I tried this with good results, but found that even without a hot knife, going back over the frosting after it had set resulted in a smoother finish. Another technique, the paper towel method,  requires a crusting buttercream, which has more sugar than Swiss buttercream. You take a soft paper towel (Viva is recommended) and lightly press it against the frosting surface to smooth any lines or bulges. I've read that this technique works very well, but it would require me to find a different recipe. Note: I plan to experiment with shortening-based frostings soon because they stand up better to heat and humidity.

I never got the tops flat, but had better luck with my next cake.

Ideally you would chill all the tiers after frosting them, but I just didn't have enough space. I learned that it's a pretty important step and will never skip it again! Now it's time to prepare the tiers for stacking. I used thin wooden dowels for my support this time. I learned that I don't really like this method because they shift easily and are a pain to cut evenly. No matter what you use for support, it's important to measure accurately. What you should do is take a dowel and insert it in each spot you will place cut dowels, marking the depth of the cake in each spot. Then, cut each dowel piece 1/8th of an inch shorter than the shortest depth. This way the dowels end just below the cake surface. I rushed this step and since my tiers were a tad uneven, they didn't stack flush. Oops!

Cutting dowels to the right length is important!

 You should place some dowels just inside the edge of the tier that will go on top of it, and the rest should go closer to the center. I didn't place any in the exact center because I planned to finish the cake with a long, sharpened dowel through all the tiers for stability. I ended up not doing this because I ran out of long dowel pieces due to remeasuring. Once the dowels were placed in each tier (except the top), I spread a small amount of frosting on top of them to act as a glue between the tiers.

Poorly measured dowels (too high)

Stacking the cake was the most nerve-racking part of the process for me. I learned that if you don't chill your tiers you're likely to ruin much of your hard work. It's nearly impossible to stack the tiers without touching the sides, and it's hard to fix the side of a tier without messing up the top of the tier below it. Eek! Chilling the tiers makes the frosting more solid and harder to sink your fingers into.

The stacked tiers needed sealing.

Even when tiers are stacked directly on top of each other (without the awkward gap my doweling situation left me with), they generally need sealing. At first I tried piping a bead border at the bottom of each tier, but I wanted a smoother, more modern look. So, I used a small offset spatula to fill in the gaps and cover the cardboard circles the tiers were resting on (I should have trimmed these at the beginning when I saw they were a little bigger than the cakes). At this point, my cake was ready for decorating!

My plan was to decorate the cake in a bunch of different ways, but life got in the way. Instead, I tried one of the designs that Roberta sent me a picture of. More on that later...

Thursday, February 3

Recipe Review: Chicken Stock and Chicken Noodle Soup

My blog posts have been few and far between in the past few weeks because I've had a lot going on in my non-cyber life. This month I'll be covering for a fellow RD at Walton Rehabilitation Hospital on top of my usual work at Doctors. But I wanted to start what I hope will be a regular feature here - a review of a recipe I've tried recently and enjoyed. 

Today I'm actually going to cover two recipes - one for homemade chicken stock, which is a staple that I use often in my cooking, and one for chicken noodle soup, which is an easy, delicious way to use the stock.

The Recipe:
Chicken Stock - Barefoot Contessa Family Style, Ina Garten
3 (5-pound) roasting chickens (I use roasted chicken carcasses, meat removed)
3 large yellow onions, unpeeled and quartered
6 carrots, unpeeled and halved
4 stalks celery with leaves, cut into thirds
4 parsnips, unpeeled and cut in half, optional (I skip this)
20 sprigs fresh parsley
15 sprigs fresh thyme
20 sprigs fresh dill (I skip this)
1 head garlic, unpeeled and cut in 1/2 crosswise
2 tablespoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
    Place the chickens, onions, carrots, celery, parsnips, parsley, thyme, dill, garlic, and seasonings in a 16 to 20-quart stockpot. Add 7 quarts of water and bring to a boil. Simmer, uncovered, for 4 hours. Strain the entire contents of the pot through a colander and discard the solids. Chill the stock overnight. The next day, remove the surface fat. Use immediately or pack in containers and freeze for up to 3 months.

    The Review:

    In case you think making chicken stock from scratch is just a fussy extra step to otherwise good recipes (I used to), just read this recipe and see how easy it is. I simmer this stock on a Sunday afternoon while I'm doing other things. This makes an amber-colored liquid with a much deeper flavor than canned chicken broth, and if made with roasted bones instead of whole chickens, is much cheaper than store-bought. It's also lower in sodium, and can be made with less salt than called for. It's a great use for carrot peelings and celery stubs. I like to roast a chicken every once in a while and usually eat some of the meat as is, then shred the leftovers for use in recipes like chicken pot pie. This is a great use for the carcass. Although Ina says to use whole chickens, I just can't bring myself to waste all that meat (it's waterlogged after simmering that long). I've found that roasting gives the bones a kind of toasty flavor that results in a very flavorful stock. I put any reserved chicken skin/fat in the pot for flavor. This recipe is very forgiving. I don't think I've used the right amounts for everything any time that I've made this and it always tastes great. I recently tried a new chicken stock recipe in the crock pot and have frozen it all without trying it first. Once I use it I'll let everyone know if it's up to the Ina standard.

    The Recipe

    Chicken Noodle Soup - Barefoot Contessa Family Style, Ina Garten
    2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
    1 cup medium-diced celery (2 stalks)
    1 cup medium-diced carrots (3 carrots)
    3/4 tsp Kosher salt
    1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
    2 quarts homemade chicken stock
    2 cups wide egg noodles
    2-3 cups cooked shredded or cubed chicken
    1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

    Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

    Place the chicken breast on a sheet pan and rub the skin with olive oil. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until cooked through. When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bones, discard the skin, and shred or dice the chicken meat.
    Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a large pot and add celery, carrots, and noodles. Simmer uncovered for about 10 minutes, until the noodles are cooked. Add the cooked chicken meat and parsley and heat through.
    Season to taste and serve.

    The Review

    It was short on broth by this bowl, but still tasty.
    Chicken soup has never been my favorite, mostly because I've always had it straight out of a can. This soup has what Campbell's doesn't - flavor, texture, and desirable appearance. It really is the ultimate comfort food, but I wouldn't just save it for sick days. If you have stock and shredded  chicken in your freezer you can eat this soup in just over 10 minutes. Can't beat that, right?