Sunday, January 31, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 9: Cake decorating with Clemence, part 1

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When you're nine days away from spending the day decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund (thanks to Foodbuzz and Electrolux), and you're a complete novice when it comes to pasty bags and decorating tips, you're very, very lucky to have a friend like Clemence Gossett. Clemence, who owns Gourmandise Desserts and is one of the most sought-after baking teachers in Los Angeles, agreed to give me a private tutorial in working with fondant, that smooth, beautiful icing that covers most fancy bakery cakes. Not only that, she was willing to give me this lesson at the crack of dawn, after our respective kids were off to school but before I had to go to work.

[Note: Because Clemence is a completely amazing teacher and packed so much into the hour and a half I was there, I'm going to cover this in two posts. Part one: preparations.]

When I got to Clemence's bungalow, the cakes were sitting in their baking pans, all ready to decorate. Clemence pointed out that it's crucial to make the cake a day ahead so it can cool thoroughly; if it's even the slightest bit warm in the center, it will ruin the decorations.

We started out by making a Swiss buttercream. Clemence whipped six eggs in the stand mixer with the whisk attachment until they were very frothy. At the same time, she combined a cup of sugar with a quarter-cup of water and boiled it to the soft-ball stage (large, lazy bubbles).


 When the sugar syrup reached the right point, she added it to the eggs - slowly, or you end up with scrambled eggs! - and let the mixer keep running until the bowl was cool, about 10 minutes. She switched to the paddle attachment and added a vanilla bean (split but otherwise intact, because the action of the mixer takes out all the flavorful seeds; at the end, she took out the pods). Then she beat in a pound and a half of butter until the texture was just right, light and creamy. Clemence likes this frosting because it holds up well and isn't too sweet. We'd use the buttercream for the crumb coat, the layer that goes under the fondant.


We also made a whipped chocolate ganache to fill the cake. We heated a cup of cream and poured it over a pound of dark chocolate pieces, stirred until it was melted, and put it in the freezer to cool down for a few minutes. Then we put the bowl on Clemence's other stand mixer - gotta love a girl who's got two - and whipped it into a fluffy, mousse-like state. It tasted just like chocolate mousse.

Next, Clemence taught me how to even the top of the cake and then split it into layers. Essential: Get one of those rotating turntable cake stands. Put something under the cake so you can move it easily when you're done. Use a serrated knife. Hold the knife in your good hand and place your other hand flat on top of the cake to guide it.

Before you start, mark the cake with the knife along the places you plan to cut the layers. Then, using only the bottom third of the blade, gently cut into the outer ring of the cake, using tiny sawing motions and pushing the cake around with your guiding hand. Move the cake more than the knife. Keep going around, pushing in a little more as you go, until you're all the way through. Repeat until the top is level and your layers are done. We split two small cakes into three layers each.


After that, it was all about assembly and decoration. So tune in tomorrow for part two, where we fill the cake with ganache, put on a crumb coat with buttercream, color and roll out fondant, drape the cake, and decorate it with luster dust and fondant calla lilies.

Oh, and by the way, in case you were wondering, Clemence is amazing. Every cabinet and drawer in her kitchen is filled with baking equipment and supplies. She thought her pantry was too messy for this picture, but I think it's fantastic:

I wonder how happy my kids would be if they got cake every single day (as I imagine Clemence's kids do)?

Saturday, January 30, 2010

DineLA lunch at FIG restaurant

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During dineLA Restaurant Week, restaurants all around Los Angeles offer three-course menus at reasonable fixed prices. My colleague Sarah and I took advantage of the great deals to sneak off to a really outstanding lunch at FIG restaurant, in the Fairmont Miramar hotel in Santa Monica. Some snapshots:

Warm bread with arugula butter
Blistered romaine hearts with white anchovies
Pasta-less lasagne (vegetables and thinly sliced potatoes)

Torta de lengua (tongue sandwich) with cilantro and radishes
Chocolate pot de creme
Fig bars with Greek yogurt ice cream

Wine pairings at Pourtal with SwirlSmellSlurp

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I'm feeling lucky these days - in general, I mean - but I was particularly lucky last Tuesday night, when I spent the evening at Pourtal, a lovely wine bar in downtown Santa Monica, for an evening of wine and food pairings.

I'd been to Pourtal once before for an after-work drink with a colleague, and while there I experienced one of those bizarre social media moments. I'd tweeted a few days earlier about how I was looking forward to going, and Stephen Abronson, Pourtal's owner, had seen it. So after I'd been there maybe half an hour, he walked up and casually said, "Are you Erika?" I'd forgotten about the tweet, of course, so first I was confused as to how he knew my name. Then I was impressed that he'd not only seen the tweet but remembered a week later who had sent it. He'd also done some homework to find out who this tweeter coming to his place might be, because he referenced something I'd tweeted about even before I tweeted about coming to Pourtal.

Anyway, Stephen and I got to talking, and either because I'm a food blogger, or because I'm so charming, or because I tweeted about Pourtal, he invited me to be his guest for the next installment of their Wine Salon Series, where on the last Tuesday of each month they serve three wines and three artfully paired snacks, all around a theme of the night ($20 per person). I know next to nothing about wine, so, with Stephen's permission, I asked my new Twitter friends @SwirlSmellSlurp to join me. They're a lovely couple in Silver Lake who write this hilarious he-said-she-said wine blog called, as you might have guessed, Swirl Smell Slurp. Bringing them was a good call: Not only are they fun and great company, but they helped me understand what I was tasting.

She and he blog as one at SwirlSmellSlurp

[Let me say this: If you're interested in a much more detailed description of the wines we drank, you should read SwirlSmell Slurp's account of the night. What follows are definitely the comments of a wine novice.]

The theme of the night was "Zinology," with wines from Croatia, Italy and California, all made from the grape we know as Zinfandel (Plavac Mali in Croatian, Primitivo in Italian). Helena Centerwall, a local wine educator, came around to each table to talk about the wines they were serving.

The Swirl Smell  Slurp experts have a method when they taste wines together. They write down the facts from the bottle, note the color, smell for a while, then taste and savor. They wait a minute to see how long the taste lingers in their mouths, then taste again. And all this they do in silence, so each can form his or her own opinion without undue influence from the other.

I'm not much into wine details, so I'm going to give you the big picture (again, for details, visit Swirl Smell Slurp). We tasted the Croatian wine first, a Dingac Vinarija Peljesac (Plavac Mali, 2007), which was paired with an aged goat cheese from Cypress Grove. It was light and relatively simple; I liked the way it went with the cheese.


Next was the Italian wine, a Vigneti Reale "Rudia" Primitivo (2006, Puglia) - a little heavier and more complex - served with homemade spanikopita, very buttery and cheesy. Helena noted that spinach is notoriously hard to pair with wine, but because it had been baked in the phyllo crust and surrounded by so much dairy, all its rough edges had melted away.


Last was the Mountain View Vintners "Clockspring" Zinfandel (2006), from Amador County in northern California. Helena described the area as an up-and-coming wine region between Sacramento and the Nevada border. It was paired with a little pork belly sandwich, tender and a little sweet from days of marinade. The wine could have used a stronger finish and left me a little cold - but then again, what do I know? I liked the label, anyway.

The biggest treat of the night was when Helena went back to get these little vials filled with pure aromas. She handed us four numbered vials and asked us to guess what we smelled in each. In the first round, SSS went three for four; I identified correctly vanilla and licorice but missed violet and black pepper. Helena went back for four more vials, and this time we were all stumped (by grapefruit, strawberry, butter, and peach). The difference between the two groups? The first were aromas we'd just experienced in the wines we tasted; the second group, random and unrelated. Apparently our noses have memory and can be quite gullible.


So here's what I learned that evening:
  • I do not have a very good sense of smell. I am not, as Helena called it, a "Super Smeller." 
  • The SSS couple met years ago through their personal blogs, commenting on each other's commentary. They are embarrassed to tell that story, but I don't know why, because I think it's adorable.
  • SSS She used to be in the wine business. SSS He used to be a professional skateboarder, but you'd never guess it, because he dresses like an architect (which, as it happens, he is).
  • After smelling something for about 15 seconds, your nose gets overwhelmed and goes blank.
  • SSS She currently lives in a house that measures about 100 square feet. Yes, 100. She says it's all kitchen. Where does she keep her clothes? In the kitchen. Apparently the house has other redeeming qualities, including a Viking stove.
  • If I tried to write a blog with my husband, we'd be writing a blog called "This Is Why We're Divorced." 

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 10: A margarita for Kelly

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(Yes, I realize that the photo above is not cake.)

Just 10 days left until I'm in New York slathering on the frosting with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. I've got so much to do before then: haircut! packing! Nine more Countdown to Kelly Ripa posts! There is one thing I'm crossing off my list, though: My husband points out that I definitely do not need a pedicure to go to New York in February. Ah, socks, I'd almost forgotten you existed.

Today I am toasting Kelly and her important work for the OCRF with what's reportedly her favorite drink: a margarita. At least, that's what she told SELF magazine a few years ago. Well, who doesn't like a margarita, right? So I invited my friend Aaron Vanek, who writes the extremely witty LA Cocktails Examiner column, to come over and show me how it's done. He and his wife Kirsten joined us for drinks and dinner - they brought the booze, I made the food.

Aaron arrived with two shopping bags full of tequilas, orange liqueurs, limes, agave nectar, homemade simple syrup, and various shakers and jiggers. I love a man who comes prepared, don't you? We tasted the tequilas and the one mezcal in the bunch. They're cousins, tequila and mezcal, but tequila is made only from blue agave, cooked above ground, and distilled several times; mezcal, by contrast, is made from different kinds of agave, roasted in an underground pit, and distilled only once. The mezcal has an earthy taste, and though I'm told it's heretical, I actually preferred the margarita made with mezcal.

So, Kelly, this one's for you. Thanks for your hard work raising awareness of crucial women's health issues, and I look forward to raising a glass (or a pastry bag) with you in New York a week from Tuesday.

Aaron's masterful classic margarita (makes 1)
  • 2 ounces mezcal
  • 1 ounce orange liqueur
  • juice of 1/2 lime
  • 1 1/2 tsp agave nectar
Pour all ingredients into a shaker with ice. Shake vigorously for 30 seconds. Rim a glass with coarse salt. Pour the drink, including the ice, into the salt-rimmed glass. Enjoy.

Oh, and if you're wondering what we ate: Cheese straws (with bacon added in) as a nibble with the margaritas; roasted salmon with a sorrel-Meyer lemon sauce; risotto with Oregon truffles; radish salad; and banana chocolate chip bread pudding. It's important to feed the bartender well.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 11: Cakes by Craig

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With 11 days to go before I decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, one thing is certain: My friends are pretty sick of hearing me talk about cake. It's a good thing Foodbuzz and Electrolux are dealing with the details of the food blogger competition, because I'm focused only on cakes.

I discovered recently that my high school friend Craig has been expressing himself in fondant, gum paste and frosting over the past few years. If you had asked me in high school which of the boys I knew might end up in the kitchen, Craig would not have been on the list. However, grown-up Craig, now an ad man in New York (his latest project:, is also daddy Craig, and little boys - including his - love cake. This is one dad who goes to great lengths to make his kid happy - and that, by the way, is definitely something I could have predicted from the Craig I knew in high school. Despite the fact that he spent most of three years of Latin class poking me.

I thought I'd showcase a few of his masterpieces and let him tell you about them.

Says Craig: "The first one is Lightning McQueen, which looks a little like he was in an acid storm. Things learned: Crumb coating is not to be underestimated. Can't have too much icing. Writing on fondant with food markers makes things much easier. Four-year-olds have lower standards than I do, so it did not disappoint, although for adults it's best to look at it from a distance. With your eyes squinting. Through translucent glass."


Craig again: "These are Halloween of 2009. I wanted to make a cake for PS 42's cake walk, a school tradition where people bake cakes and other people pay $5 to get a random cake. Things learned: Gum paste is super fun and easier to work with than fondant (made lots of little spider legs and then shined them up with a shot glass full of vodka and few drops of black gel paste. Then just stuck the little legs into the frosting. It was my first experience with gum paste and I was very happy with the result especially as I designed the spiders myself). I also made a cupcake just for my little man."
Still Craig: "This is Trace's fifth birthday. He lives for Mario Bros. This cake shown is actually the fourth cake, as the third cake (which was composed of approximately 6 sheet and 2 semi-sphere cakes) did not work out. Originally I was going to make a vertical bust of Mario. I made the shoulders out of a two-layer sheet cake and then did all the fondant work (red shirt, overall straps, gold buttons) and then I attempted to put a sphere of cake comprised of the two semi-spheres on top of it. Despite 6 dowels and wishful thinking, the cake began to crush, implode, disintegrate before my dreams of putting the cake hat on top of that could even gel. That was two days of work done. Then I made the cake you see, cut out of a traditional sheet cake and decorated with caucasian flesh-colored icing (i.e. light orange) made from food dye with vanilla frosting and decorated with fondant that I bought in pre-colored little blocks from Broadway Panhandler.

"Things I learned: Cake is heavy. Fondant can cover everything despite not tasting so good. Kids don't realize fondant doesn't taste so good. You need a lot of food dye (should have used food gel) to get red frosting. Mine came out pink so I colored on top of it with red sugar as I used all my red fondant on the previous disaster."

Thanks for sharing, Craig!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 12: Interview with Cakespy

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Twelve days until I'll be in New York with a gaggle of food bloggers to decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund! Foodbuzz and Electrolux are getting everything set for the competition, and I'm continuing with my quest to learn a little something about cake decorating so I don't make a complete fool of myself. The people in my office, by the way, are extremely glad that I'm taking my studies so seriously - they're getting most of my "homework."

I know I said yesterday that today I'd be writing about my morning with Clemence of Gourmandise Desserts. That statement, I'm afraid, was overly ambitious. I forgot just how many pictures I took and how long it would take me to sort and edit them. My lesson in Swiss buttercream and fondant will have to wait a day or two - sorry. It'll be worth the wait.

But today I've got something just as exciting to share. Remember the interview I did a few days ago with my teammate Kelly from Evil Shenanigans? Well, today you get to meet Jessie from Cakespy, our third musketeer. Together, Kelly, Jessie and I plan to conquer the cake competition. And probably cover ourselves with frosting in the process.

Jessie's got an interesting and unique take on this food blogging thing: Not only does she write about sweets, but she draws them, too. She's created some of the cutest cake characters I've ever seen, and she's put them on cards, magnets, watercolors, mugs, t-shirts and more in her Cakespy online store. She answered a few questions about her art, her cake skills and her plans for New York.

Erika: Let's just get this out of the way. Velveeta in fudge

Jessie from Cakespy: I did it because Paula Deen told me to, duh! I am a mere pawn in her evil master scheme to make us all morbidly (but joyfully) obese.

Erika: Tell us about your blog. When did you start, and why, and what do you write about? 

Jessie: I started CakeSpy in the summer of 2007, initially as a way to meld my three major passions: writing, illustration, and cake. By Spring 2008 my web store (in which I sell artwork and products) had taken off to the point where I could quit my day job - so I've been a professional cake sleuth (and illustrator) since then.

Erika: You are a fabulous artist. When did you start making food art? 

Jessie: Why thank you! I think that while I always drew little food characters growing up, a major turning point was during Typography class at art school. We had to make one of our initials in a typeface and medium which we felt truly showcased our own personality. I made a cake in the shape of a Garamond "J" and became the most popular kid in my class. It became immediately clear that food would have to be a serious part of my artwork from then on - both literally and figuratively.

Erika: We know you can draw cakes, but can you decorate them? 

Jessie: Unfortunately, my cake-writing isn't as refined as my drawing...but I feel like I know a few tricks!

Erika: Does the cupcake that appears in many of your works of art have a name?

Jessie: His (yes, it's a he! Although sometimes there is a girl-cake too) name is Cuppie. Want his story? OK. He was made using a bit of leftover cake batter and as a result has always had a chip on his shoulder about not being his own "complete" cake - this has inspired him to venture out into the great wide world and seek adventure to try and define himself.

Erika: So when is your food art appearing in the New Yorker? 

Jessie: You've got to be kidding me! When I was a college student in NYC, I dropped off my portfolio at least once a month at the New Yorker for a time. Every week they rejected me, and I sadly ventured out of 4 Times Square and drowned my sorrows in crumb cake. But hey, the receptionist sure was amused by me. If and when they ever do publish my work, cake (and champagne) is on me!

Erika: Finish this sentence: When I meet Kelly Ripa, I... 

Jessie: ...will challenge her to a tiny arm wrestling match. OK, I have to confess, that's not my idea, it was an idea that came from my friend Natalie ( who told me to challenge Kelly in such a way. While I hear that Kelly and I are around the same height, I'm pretty sure she could kick my butt.

Erika: So are we going to kick some serious food blogger booty in this competition or what? 

Jessie: You bet your sweet...

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 13: Cake music

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Thirteen days to go, and it's starting to feel real. In less than two weeks, Kelly Ripa and I will be decorating cakes together in New York to raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Foodbuzz and Electrolux have fed us a few more details, including what to wear (casual, they'll supply the aprons). Of course, New York casual and southern California casual are probably two different things entirely, so I've still got wardrobe decisions to make.

After Kelly from Evil Shenanigans told me she used to be a singer, I started thinking about thematically appropriate songs for us to hum during the event. My Twitter friends suggested a few classics:
  • Mama's little baby loves shortenin', shortenin'...
  • Big Rock Candy Mountain
  • If I knew you were comin' I'd-a baked a cake
  • Sugar, Sugar (the Archies, 1969)
  • Sugar Pie, Honey Bun
  • Brown Sugar
  • The Good Ship Lollipop
  • The Muffin Man
All wonderful songs. However, this one by the fresh-faced English duo Rocky and Balls is the clear winner. I've been listening to it all day. Enjoy - you'll definitely be in the mood for a cupcake when this is over!

Coming tomorrow: pictures from my private cake decorating lesson with Gourmandise Dessert's Clemence Gossett! I am so ready for New York....

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 14: A conversation with Kelly from Evil Shenanigans

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It's two weeks exactly until the big day! In 14 days, I'll be plotting and piping in New York with Kelly from Evil Shenanigans and Jessie from Cakespy (and the 12 other food bloggers on the other teams) as we decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. Today we learned that the event, sponsored by Foodbuzz and Electrolux, will indeed be filmed, which means three things: I need a haircut, I must buy some makeup, and the clothing decisions just became a lot more important. No information yet on when or where it might air, but I'll keep you posted as I get details.

Meantime, today I'd like you to get to know my teammate Kelly a little better. Her baking blog, Evil Shenanigans, is just fantastic, and luckily for our team, she is a master cake decorator. She did all of these:



Pretty amazing, right? Far above my skill level, that's for sure. I plan to let her boss me around in New York all she wants so we have a fighting chance of winning.

Anyway, here's some more about Kelly, interview-style. Just call me Baba Wawa.

Erika: Tell us about your blog. Why did you start it? What's your focus? 
Kelly: I started my blog so my friends and family could keep up with my progress in culinary school. I intended it to be a personal journal of my time in school, but people started to ask for recipes. It evolved from there.

Erika: Are you a lifetime baker, or did you pick it up later on?
Kelly: My mom used to let me help in the kitchen as a child and I loved watching the things I mixed and measured transform into desserts I could eat. That wonder never really went away and three years ago I entered culinary school to expand my passion. I intend, one day, to open a small boutique bakery in Dallas that specializes in pastry, cakes and desserts.

Erika: On a scale of one to 10, how much of a cake decorating rockstar are you?
Kelly: Ummm, 6 or 6.5. There is SO much I do not know, and so much I need to improve on. I want to learn more about fondant, gum paste, and buttercream decorations. I love cake decorating. It is a fantastic  creative outlet for me and the more I do it the better I become!

Erika: What's the most complicated thing you've attempted in the cake decorating arena?
Kelly: Gum paste flowers for a luau cake I did. I had never worked with gum paste before and it was a challenge to make the dough look the way I wanted. Also, my best friend’s wedding cake was a challenge because I baked, assembled, and decorated the cake in about 6 hours AND I did it in England.

Erika: What's the ratio of baking to cooking on your blog?
Kelly: I try for a 50/50 split, but baking may have a slight edge as I love it so much.

Erika: How did you learn to take good food photos, and what kind of camera do you use?
Kelly: First, thank you! You are very kind. I have done some research on photography and learned a lot through trial and error. I shoot with an Olympus E-420 as of December. I love it!

Erika: What do you do with all the food you make to blog about?
Kelly: Most of what you see ends up as dinner/dessert and what we can’t finish goes to our respective offices. I can tell you, my husband and I are pretty popular!

Erika: Your bio says you sang opera in a former life. Care to elaborate?
Kelly: I love to sing and have done so since I was a child. In high school I discovered opera and focused my study in that direction. I majored in Music and Theater in college and wanted to travel and sing all over the globe. Plans changed, however, when I met my future husband and settled down. I still sing, but not anywhere near the level I did ten years ago. I miss it, but I have discovered I love baking, cooking, and recipe creation far more than singing.

Erika: Finish this sentence: "When I meet Kelly Ripa, I'm going to..."
Kelly: Smile like a moron!

Visit Kelly's blog and leave her a comment or two! And watch this space for my upcoming interview with my other teammate, Jessie from Cakespy!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 15: Fun facts about...Kelly Ripa

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Two weeks and a day, and I'll be in New York, chatting it up with Kelly Ripa as we pipe frosting to raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. I'm starting to plot strategy with my teammates - Kelly from Evil Shenanigans and Jessie from Cakespy - because, after all, it's a competition, and we are getting ready to kick some serious food blogger booty.

I want to be well prepared for my brush with celebrity, so I've been reading up on Ms. Ripa, trying to find common threads and big contrasts I can use as conversation-starters. Here's what I've dug up so far:
  • Kelly is four years, one month and 22 days younger than I am.
  • She's from New Jersey. I'm from Long Island. When I first read that she hailed from New Jersey, I had a flash of hope that we'd have some Tri-State-area bonding. That hope was short-lived. She's from the part of New Jersey that's near Philadelphia.
  • Kelly performed in theater productions at her high school. I played in the pit orchestra in theater productions at my high school.
  • In 1990, Kelly joined the cast of All My Children, a popular ABC soap opera which was shot on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. In 1990, I lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, about six blocks from the studio where AMC was taped. Therefore, it is safe to assume that we may have thumbed through the same stacks of CDs at the now-defunct Tower Records on 66th and Broadway, seen the same foreign films at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema, or waited on the subway platform together at the Columbus Circle station. Oh wait - TV stars didn't take the subway in the 90s - they had town cars waiting outside for them at all times. Scratch that last one.
  • Kelly won a quarter of a million dollars for charity on a celebrity version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire. I've never been on an actual game show but spent many evenings at home shouting out answers while watching Jeopardy! with my father.
  • Kelly and her husband Mark Consuelos have two boys and a girl. I have two boys. Parenting stories always go over well. Maybe we can compare notes on mothering tween boys. I wonder if her kids also jiggle her belly fat before bedtime as a comforting goodnight ritual? Oh, wait...belly fat...probably not.
  • Two things over which I know we will not be bonding: workout tips and hair advice. I will never have arms like that. And clearly we have nothing in common when it comes to our manes. Mine: shaggy and temperamental. Hers: well, you've seen it. Neither shaggy nor temperamental.
  • She's got an outie, which many people have witnessed (in these bikini shots). I have an innie that never sees the light of day. Maybe if I had paparazzi with telephoto lenses following me I'd be more motivated to get into bikini shape. 
So there you have it. We can talk about high school musicals, parenting, Tower Records, and navels. Oh, yes, this is going to go just fine.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 16: Piped chocolate decorations

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Just 16 days until the big cake decorating event in New York for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, starring me and Kelly Ripa! (Oh, and 14 other very nice food bloggers, too.) While Foodbuzz and Electrolux finish up the details, I'm continuing to work on my skill set. Today I had to dip a bunch of dried apricots in chocolate to take to a party, so I decided to use the leftover melted chocolate to freehand some piped chocolate decorations.

As you can see, I am not the most creative person in the world.

I used a disposable pastry bag and the smallest round-hole tip. Oh, yes, I learned recently that they're number-coded: It was a #2. I had some trouble keeping the pressure steady, which is why some of the shapes are raggedy. The music note, G-clef, heart and squiggles look good to me.

For those who haven't done this: You pipe the chocolate in a thin stream onto parchment paper. It hardens and sets, and then you can lift the whole thing off - carefully - and place it on top of a cake or cupcake. I didn't have any iced cupcakes handy, but I imagine if you put the chocolate decoration on top of frosting, it will more or less stick there.

The background of the photo above looks a little funky and dirty because I had the chocolate on top of a white plastic cutting board that's seen a bit of action.

So here's a question: Can you get the same effect using a zip-top bag with the corner snipped off? Because, if so, that is absolutely what I'm doing next time. Cleaning the melted chocolate off the coupler and out of the decorating tips was a pain in the ^$$. Thank you, kindest husband, for going at them with an old toothbrush.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 17: Shopping

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I'm starting to get nervous about my upcoming trip to New York to decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. While Foodbuzz and Electrolux get all the details of the competition ironed out, I'm here at home, distracted and biting my nails.

I don't know about you, but when this girl gets nervous, she

And so I thought I'd share with you a list of the top 10 cake decorating items I would most like to purchase right now. Keep in mind that my birthday is coming back around in seven months. Be prepared.

#10 - Wilton's floral collection flower making set. This toolkit for making gum paste flowers looks like Play-Doh for grownups. I love the fact that it has cutters in the shape of every imaginable flower leaf and petal, including baby's breath, pansy, stephanotis (I don't even know what that is, but I'm sure it's beautiful on a cake), and several sizes each of daisies and roses.

#9 - 12-piece gel paste food coloring kit from There are 12 reasons why I want this: black, blue, yellow, green, pink, red, teal, orange, fuchsia, violet, sky blue and brown.

#8 - Set of 24 mini pastel silicone baking cups from Williams-Sonoma. You don't even need a baking pan - these are sturdy enough to sit on a baking sheet by themselves. And when the mini-cupcakes are gone, the little liners go in the dishwasher. I'm in love.

#7 - Gift cakelet pan from Williams-Sonoma. I'm not at all sure I'd be able to decorate these tiny little jewel boxes once they came out of the oven. The picture seems to show fondant and royal icing and maybe some gum paste flowers on top, and I'm not there yet. But can't I just pour some thin ganache over the top, throw on a few dragees, and call it a cake(let)?

#6 - Mirror-top cake stand. This looks so fancy and festive - even the simplest decorated cake would look stunning on this stand. I have a small collection of cake stands, and I use them all the time, and not only for cakes. They're perfect for serving little nibbles at cocktail parties, or you can make small pizzas and serve them on a fancy stand like this to dress up dinner.

#5 - Zebra-striped cupcake liners from Into the Oven. These speak for themselves. I also love the purple polka-dots.

#4 - Wilton's triangle silicone baking cups. They're reusable, they're triangular, and they come in pink and purple. Somehow, the idea of triangular cupcakes appeals to me - very mod.

#3 - Heart-shaped cupcake pan from My husband, whom otherwise I adore, has this teeny tiny annoying habit of hating all holidays. Especially Valentine's Day. He knows I like it when he makes me feel like a princess on this day of hearts, so he goes through the motions, but I know he's doing it grudgingly. (He'd willingly do away with birthdays, anniversaries, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc. as well.) But I'm a sucker for red and pink on Valentine's Day, and I'd love to make sweet little heart-shaped cupcakes in this pan. If I make them chocolate, I'm pretty sure he'll eat them. 

#2 - Pink 36-cupcake carrier from If I'm going to go to all the trouble of making them and painstakingly decorating them, I want them to arrive at their destination intact.

And #1 - The great cupcake cake pan from Williams-Sonoma. Okay, it's a little gimmicky - you bake the "cupcake" in two large pieces, top and bottom, and then stick them together with frosting when you're done. But it's so adorable!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 18: Cake decorating for dummies (like me)

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It's 18 days until my trip to New York to decorate cakes with Kelly Ripa on behalf of the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund. The teams at Foodbuzz and Electrolux are working hard on the details of the cake decorating -event. All we know so far is that we food bloggers will be working in teams of three - I'm working with Jessie from Cakespy and Kelly from Evil Shenanigans - and our finished creations will be posted on Kelly Confidential and put to a vote. Yikes. Either we'll have to be really good, or we'll have to use our charm and wit to convince everyone to cast their votes in our favor. Talent or popularity? Hmm.

Meantime, I'm trying to get into the zone. I lie in bed at night, imagining a pastry bag in my hand; I squeeze the pillow, half expecting frosting to come oozing out of the corner. I dream about star tips and meringue powder and icing roses. I run through frosting recipes and their variations in my head: lemon buttercream, sour cream chocolate ganache, Italian meringue. I'm excited yet overwhelmed. I've read a lot but have had very little hands-on cake decorating experience. Where do I start?

That's why I felt lucky to get half an hour on the phone today with Sandy Folsom, director of the Wilton School of Cake Decorating and Confectionery Art in Darien, Illinois. Wilton, if you're not familiar, is one of the biggest and best known manufacturers and distributors of cake decorating supplies and instructional materials in the U.S. If you've ever decorated a cake, chances are you have some of their equipment in your drawers. The school has been around since 1929. Sandy has been teaching cake decorating for more than 30 years, and many of her students have been just as inexperienced as I am. Here are her tips for beginning cake decorators - and let me tell you, you'll want to bookmark this post.

1. Start with buttercream. It tastes good, Americans recognize and like it, and it's the easiest frosting to work with. Sandy likes Wilton's basic buttercream recipe, which calls for half butter (for flavor) and half vegetable shortening (for texture). Yes, you really need the shortening. You can use the trans-fat-free shortening, but it tends to dry out, so add a little extra moisture to the frosting to compensate.

2. Learn how to hold the pastry bag. Don't use those heavy professional canvas ones - you want the light "featherweight" bags, or disposable plastic decorating bags are fine too. Sandy doesn't recommend the guns or pumps novices sometimes gravitate toward - they give you less control.

3. Never overfill your pastry bag. Only put in as much frosting as you can hold in your palm. Otherwise you risk having it squirt out the top. (I can vouch for this.)

4. Make sure your frosting has the right consistency. For icing a cake - that is, putting frosting all over it in one smooth layer - thin your frosting with milk or water (most pros use water because it's more shelf-stable than milk, but it's up to you). All-over-the-cake frosting should have the consistency of soft-serve ice cream, i.e. soft peaks. For piping decorations, make the frosting stiffer, maybe the consistency of pudding. When it comes to making icing roses or other decorations that need to stand up on their own, you want a very stiff frosting, as stiff as you can make it and still squeeze it out of the pastry bag.

5. If you have warm hands - as I do - your frosting will soften in the bag as you work with it. The best way to compensate for this, says Sandy, is to use all shortening instead of butter in your buttercream. Don't just put the icing bag in the refrigerator, because the consistency won't be right. You can also try soaking your hands in ice water for a few minutes before starting to work, if you can stand it (that's my suggestion, not Sandy's).

6. To avoid getting cake crumbs in your frosting, use a "crumb coat." Take very thin buttercream and spread a thin layer of that all over the cake, then refrigerate the cake to set that first layer. Then apply a second coat - generously, says Sandy, "Don't try to stretch your frosting, don't skimp" - over the first. It's better to put on too much and have to take it off at the end, she says, than to start with too little. And let the frosting set before starting to decorate, because it's easier to work on a firm, chilled cake.

7. The easiest decorating technique, and the one Sandy thinks everyone should start with, is the Star Fill-In (pictured above). To make a star, use a medium-sized star tip (#18 - did you know decorating tips all have number codes on them? I didn't). Hold the tip perpendicular to and slightly above the surface, maybe 1/8 inch. Squeeze, and release the pressure completely before lifting the bag. Fill in the given area with stars, and voila - it's art.

8. Scared of writing freehand with frosting? Use a toothpick to imprint your words lightly, then trace them with icing. If the cake has been chilled and you make a mistake, you should be able to lift the writing right off with a toothpick. (Now that, in my opinion, is genius.) You can also use a cookie cutter to outline shapes, then fill them in with icing using the Star Fill-In technique described above.

9. A border, top and bottom, "frames the cake like a picture frame," says Sandy. Piped shells or beads make beautiful borders and are relatively easy to make.

10. If you're going to use a prefab frosting, says Sandy, you'll get great results with Wilton's canned icings, available from Wilton's online store and at retailers like Michaels, Walmart and Jo-Ann . These products are made with cake decorators specifically in mind and have the right consistency for piped decorating - grocery store canned frosting isn't stiff enough.
    Isn't that amazing? Nothing like 30 years of teaching experience. Sandy, if you're reading this, thank you. I'm ready to take on the cakes of the world. Oh, and by the way, Wilton's website has amazing step-by-step cake decorating instruction, including videos. It's worth a look.

    Thursday, January 21, 2010

    Countdown to Kelly Ripa, day 19: What we can do to prevent ovarian cancer

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    Only 19 days left to gain some serious skills in the art of cake decorating. In less than three weeks I'll be in New York with 14 other Foodbuzz Featured Publishers, decorating cakes with Kelly Ripa and Electrolux to raise money for the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund.

    We've learned a bit more about the event: The bloggers will be working in teams of three, and photos of our cakes will be posted on Kelly Confidential for you to vote on. My teammates are Jessie from Cakespy and Kelly from Evil Shenanigans - lucky for me I've been paired with two women who know A LOT more about cake decorating than I do. Let's just hope they're the bossy types.

    Anyway, after making cupcakes, tackling my pastry bag, and experimenting with royal icing, it's time for a break. So today I'm learning more about ovarian cancer. Specifically, what we women can do to reduce our chances of getting it.

    It seems clear that there are ways to lower our risk for ovarian cancer, especially for those who have strong family histories of the disease. According to the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund and, here are a few:
    • Take the Pill. Using oral contraceptives can reduce the risk of ovarian cancer 40 to 50 percent, especially if you're on the Pill for five years or more. On the down side, some experts believe that for those women with BRCA genetic mutations, the Pill can increase the risk of developing breast cancer, so it's not a panacea.
    • Have babies, not too late, and breast-feed. Women who have been pregnant are 30 to 60 percent less likely to get ovarian cancer than women who haven't. The risk is lower still if you have your first child before the age of 30 (oh well, I missed out on that one). Breast-feeding also seems to offer some protection. Doctors acknowledge that this shouldn't be the driving factor in making reproductive decisions, but if you're in a stable relationship and planning to have kids anyway, seems like it's worth considering.
    • Get your tubes tied. They're not sure why this works - one theory is that it prevents carcinogens that enter through the vagina from reaching the ovaries - but tubal ligation (after you're done having kids, of course) does seem to decrease the risk of ovarian cancer.
    • Get screened if you're high risk. If anyone in your immediate family has had ovarian cancer - mother, sister, aunt, grandmother - your risk is elevated. Talk to your doctor about the possibility of genetic screening, and ask what tests can be done to watch for the earliest signs of the disease. 
    A personal note here: Two of my closest friends have had breast cancer, found out they were BRCA-positive, and elected to have their ovaries removed prophylactically. It's not a decision every woman would make, but they'd already had their kids, and they knew that removing their ovaries would significantly reduce their chances of both ovarian cancer and more breast cancer. For them, it was the right decision.
    • Eat a low-fat diet, reduce meat consumption, and maintain a healthy weight. This does seem to be the most popular all-around preventative measure for a number of illnesses, so it's probably worth taking seriously. 
    For my part, I'm trying to eat less meat. But I've always struggled with my weight, and right now, in that battle, I'm pinned against the wall with my sword across the room. In other words, I'm pretty fat. How to change that? I'll let you know when and if I figure out the magic formula. Meantime, I try to eat lots of fruits and vegetables, I exercise when I can, I don't smoke at all and don't drink much, and I get enough sleep. We do what we can.

    Here's what else we can do: Support the Ovarian Cancer Research Fund, so they have more money to give to the scientists who are working hard to find early detection methods and even a cure for this horrible disease. Shop in their online store, sign up to volunteer, ride in or volunteer for the Ovarian Cycle bikeathon, or just donate. Every dollar helps. And thanks for being part of the solution.