Monday, December 31, 2012

Happy 2013! ...Will the Stars be Right?

(And also to you, who just happened to stumble in here while googling for cute pig pictures or a Japan/Okinawa map. I know you're out there... You know who you are!)

I am right now slightly overwhelmed with preparations for tonight's party - if you are a girl you'll know what I mean; if you're a guy, you most definitely don't need to. 'Nuff said. 

I am relieved to say that the cake was successfully baked yesterday; I swiped The Pioneer Woman's recipe for a Literal Coffee Cake (or, as I like to call it, a Knurdcake).
I had already experimented with a (slightly tweaked) version of it for my Hobbit door cupcakes, so I knew this recipe gives a cake that won't rise too much and will be dense, sturdy and, well, cake-y (in the best possible way).

(I have no idea why I got such a nasty pitted surface. Thankfully it's going to be covered  later!)

I also knew it would be rich, moist, and packed with unbelievable coffee flavour - OMG heaven! 
I filled it with a storebought spread (think Nutella, but with coffee). There's still a buttercream crumbcoat going on, but I didn't want to use it as filling as well. I think this combo will work perfectly with the cake!

And, here's a quick preview of the finished thingie... 

(I will hopefully have more pics in a couple days or so, once the party's over and the hangover's gone. Stay tuned!)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Unspeakable WIP... of DOOM!

Hi, peeps!

Wanna take a peek at what I'm planning for a very nerdy New Year's Eve party?

It must be the most blasphemous cake design EVER, but I'm having loads of fun with it!

Except for the fact that, uhm, I hate modelling plastic chocolate. Still I go out of my way to use it whenever possible, because I'm told people like the taste better than sugarpaste. Meh. That may be true, but until the day I see someone actually trying to eat the topper whole, I'll stick to my opinion that the improvement in flavour is not worth having to deal with the nasty, gooey stuff.
...GAAAAAAAH! So frustrating!

Stay tuned because this sweet Nativity scene's still missing the real stars - St. Joseph, the Virgin, and baby Jesus...
(Oh, and of course, the actuall CAKE is still missing, too. Don't bother me with such trifles! I'll bake it tomorrow. Or, so I hope...)

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Sunday, December 23, 2012

There & Back Again, or The Hobbit (cupcakes)...

Lordy Lordy Lordy, nearly two months without posting! Worse - nearly two months without baking at all, except for a quick chestnut cake that I whipped up in a hurry, and didn't take a pic of (but, fear not! Once I am done tweaking the recipe to my heart's content, I will present you with the recipe in a handy cupcake version!)
All I can say is, it has been a taxing time, what with my two main jobs and assorted RL concerns demanding my full attention.

It took no less than a new Peter Jackson trilogy to force me into breaking my silence. So, as a way to avoid checking out those pesky online spoilers before I go and watch The Hobbit with my friends in the afternoon, I assembled some quick and easy cupcakes to share with them after the movie.

And, I'm going to show you how to make your own!

First of all, you'll need cupcakes. Mine were coffee-flavoured but of course you can use any kind, as long as they're all frosted and ready to go!

Roll some green fondant (or green-tinted plastic chocolate) thinly. If you own a textured mat, all you need to do is place it on top, press it down into the sugarpaste/chocolate mass with your rolling pin, carefully detach the mat, and cut circles no bigger than the bottom of your cupcake case; slightly smaller would be perfect.
(I didn't have a cookie cutter of the right size, so I used a plastic thingie instead - I don't even know what it was supposed to be for originally. The plastic was a bit soft unfortunately, so I ended up with slightly oval shapes. Ooops!)

Trace your cutter's circumference on a scrap of baking paper, fold it twice to find the exact center, and mark the middle of every door shape with a pinprick.
Press a golden or (in my case) silver dragee in the middle of the door. Since it's so small and lightweight, a tiny drop of honey or corn syrup will do to hold it into place.

If you have no fancy-schmancy equipment, just carve a woodgrain pattern with a toothpick into the pre-cut circles (it's easier that way). Resist the temptation to make it too regular; putting in a few roundish knots will make it look so much more realistic.

Now you need bricks, and again a textured mat or rolling-pin can be a lifesaver. I used coffe-flavoured fondant, since it went well with my cupcakes, but plain old fondant or white plastic chocolate would work just as fine. Be sure to roll your mass slightly thicker than you did the green one!

Since my mat has overlapping rows of bricks, I cut the impressed fondant in such a way as to have one full vertical brick, then half one next, and so on (it's boring work, but it pays off in the end!)
Wrap your strip o' bricks around the cutter you used for the doors, cut it the right size and pinch the two ends together. At this stage you can do some cleaning up of the sharp edges etc, but you don't need to be extra neat if you don't want to - remember, this is supposed to be a quick and easy design!

You could certainly carve a brick pattern with a toothpick too, but the simplest way out is to simply cut out small rectangular shapes and arrange them around the round cutter. 
It will look slighly less interesting maybe, but actually closer to the door in the movie... 

Place the doors inside the brick circles, and you're done!
All that's left to do is to paint the bricks orange (I was out of food colour, so I used some cocoa powder dissolved into a bit of whiskey - yum! My bricks are more on the brown side this way, but they're still fine in my opinion...)

My hobbit doors looked perfectly respectable already but, as you can see, I ended up adding hinges to them, even if the one in the movie has none. 
I simply hand-cut a few arrow shapes into very thin plastic chocolate, pressed my smallest icing tip into each of them to impress the "nail", and painted them silver. 

Now if you're going to put the toppers on your cupcakes right before serving them, you can call it a day at this point. I, on the other hand, had to assemble them sever hours beforehand, since each cupcake needed to be individually packaged and given away to someone who'd maybe want to eat it the following day. Le gasp! 
I knew I couldn't just plop the toppers on top of the buttercream, because they'd go all sticky  and smudgy and deformed. So I mixed some icing sugar into my plastic chocolate to make it real hard, rolled it thickly, cut circles into it (slightly bigger than the doors), and glued my assembled toppers on them with a dab of corn syrup. This way if something has to soften for sitting atop a glob of icing, it will be the underlying discs instead of my cute little doors!

Here they are inside their individual pods, all ready for adventure!

I must say, clamshell pods are the best when it comes to handling cupcakes and carrying them around. They are not cheap, and you may be forced to buy them online, but if you're going to give away cupcakes for people to bring home (as opposed to, you know, serving the whole bunch on a tray for immediate consumption), this is the only way to go. 

Here's an adorable gift-packaged cupcake... 

...and here's a sturdy cardboard box, to rule them all fit them all snugly inside!

I am happy to say my cupcakes were safely ferried to the cinema, by underground and bus, and still looked their best when I distributed them around at the end of the movie. 

These toppers are sure to impress, and they're so easy that I am secretly regarding them as a cheat design - seriously, it took me longer to wrap the finished cupcakes up than to make the doors from scratch!
So, if you made hobbit door cupcakes of your own following this tutorial, please share - I'd love to see them! (Well, for that matter I'd love to see any cupcakes inspired by The Hobbit, because the movie was real fun!)


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Lucca Comics & Games report - part 3

Now hopefully you haven't been scared away by my previous advice! Because when all is said and done, geeks are the most cosmopolitan of people. 

You will be welcome, no matter your alignment - whether you are utterly nice...

...or evil...

...slightly misguided... 

...or downright wicked

You will meet all sorts - the cute and popular...

...and the snarky outsider...

...the brave and fearless... 

...and the hopelessly timid. 

If you'd rather leave the spotlight to the heroes and villains out there, that's okay too - there's nothing wrong with being a minion...


...or just a real person with real problems... 

...and even if you're totally clueless and merely feel like walking around in a happy, giggly daze, no one will judge you any harsher for that! 

If you still don't get the point of it all, just keep one simple thing in mind: geeks are passionate about their favourite characters.
Should you spot one of them wandering wide-eyed, smiling ecstatically - he might have had some sort of deeply meaningful religious experience... 

...or merely a brush with a time-travelling alien...

...or a wizard perharps! Now that's always exciting, regardless of it being a humble apprentice...

...a really nice guy... 

...or a not-so-nice one. 

In a nutshell, the point here is: no matter what your nerdery of choice is, we can all get along just fine, as long as we respect each other. It boils down to keeping in mind that what is merely a bi-dimensional cardboard figure to you, can be an inspirational hero to someone else - this is all there is to it, really. 

Maybe this is where the true appeal of such a convention lies: card gamers, manga fans, roleplayers, action figure collectors, videogamers, superhero enthusiasts - you name it - we are all friends here. 

Here, in Lucca. Where East and West meet...

...magic is real... 

...and pigs may fly. 

Friday, November 2, 2012

Lucca Comics & Games report - part 2

For many years now, Lucca has ben hosting Italy's largest geeky convention, Lucca Comics & Games

Over the four days spanning the Halloween weekend, the place is literally flooded with all flavours of geeks - kiddos in love with the latest manga hero, 30-something nostalgics reminiscing about the Eighties (*cough*), gamers, collectors, inquisitive minds, and best of all - cosplayers, the con's main attraction really. Cosplayers by the hundred, ranging from the painstakingly gorgeous to the outrageously silly and cheeky. 

If you are the kind of person who hates crowds, you'll want to avoid Lucca like hell while the madness is going on. If, on the other hand, you don't mind being jostled a little - oh, what the heck, make it a lot - you will be rewarded with pure, unadulterated nerdy bliss.

Once the initial shock is over, it will feel perfectly normal to raise your eyes and see something like this: 

...and, really, there's nothing to be afraid of, as long as you use some common sense. 
In the spirit of public service, I will now provide you with a few simple tips to make sure you'll survive enjoy the convention. 

Even while some of the attendees are bound to be vaguely disconcerting... will probably think you're safe, what with the heavily armed guys patrolling the streets... 

 ...the alien martial artist hereos... 

...and the Spanish Imperial Inquisition itself. 

Still, don't let your guard down! You must keep your eyes peeled at all times, because a mighty evil roams free...

...and danger lurks atop the ancient walls. 

Just try to keep and open mind, because even those beyond suspicion may act a bit weird at times... don't freak out should you happen to spot a man in tights...

...or worse

Remember that, while eating is not cheap by any means (and someone, alas, will always try to take advantage of unwary visitors)...

This is the actuall staff of the bar you can see behind. Awesome sense of irony or what? is always advisable to purchase food from reliable sources only. Because, even though you might be tempted to hunt for edible - and indeed, in a few instances, mouthwateringly delicious - specimens of local fauna... would be a shame, should... inconveniences intervene to spoil your stay. 

As they say: forewarned is forearmed!

Uh... right

(Onwards to part 3 - this post's already picture-heavy enough as it is!)

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Lucca Comics & Games report - part 1

Lucca, in Tuscany, is where the second installment of my long-awaited, convention-intensive holidays is taking place.
I'm travelling by train this time, with my ol' buddy Flavio - Japanese speaker, martial artist, manga enthusiast, and all-round weeaboo extraordinaire. Since our respective jobs kept both of us busy till the very last minute, we'll be staying for the next two nights in Viareggio (which is a delightful little seaside town in its own right) and commute daily between here and nearby Lucca.

Lucca is about 280 Km from Milano; the yellow pin on the coast is Viareggio.

Although I'm too much of a metropolitan creature to consider living there, it is one of my favourite towns to visit, and a quick hop to Wikipedia will tell you why - it was founded in pre-Roman times by the Etruscans, and traces and mementos of its long history are strewn round every corner.
You'll be sure to find ancient buildings here as well... 

S. Michele in Foro, peharps the most famous church in Lucca. See all those colums? They are all different

...and picturesque squares, starting with the famous Piazza dell'Anfiteatro - the perfectly round square that is Lucca's most iconic view.

Practically all streets here can be expected to be evocatively narrow, and to have awesome names to boot such as Via Buia ("Dark Street"), often reminiscent of some long-lost feature or landmark (such as a well, a ditch, an orange tree, or a particular workshop.)

Although there are no gryphons to be seen and fountains are nothing to write home about, you get mosaics...

S. Frediano, the most ancient church in Lucca, dates back to 685 b.C.

...and columns...
See what I meant about the columns?

...and above all, these impressive city walls that always make me feel like I'm stepping right into the Middle Ages just by entering town.

Even if Lucca can't boast a theme hotel for chocoholics to bask into, it does have gorgeous bakeries that are every bit as drool-worthy!
The town's most traditional sweets are nicely rounded up in the pic below: on the top shelf you can see panforte (a dense, spicey sort of fruitcake); the pie-like things on the middle one are torte coi becchi (the one on the left is filled with a mixture of rice and chocolate, while the one on the right has a veggie jam filling); finally, both the loaves and the round shapes displayed on the green cloth are buccellato, a sweet bread with raisins.

Lucca, and Tuscany in general, has a long-standing tradition for artistic pottery. Colourful ceramic plates and cups arranged in beautiful displays are a common view, and make for a perfect gift for a fellow cake lover... or for yourself!

The same can be said about woodworking, so if rustic's more your style you could find yourself the proud mommy of a pestle or rolling pin hand-carved out of olive-wood.
(I was soooo tempted myself... but I would have felt a little bit self-conscious, travelling by train with a friggin' huge rolling pin sticking out from my luggage!)

Oh, and one final thing: should you find yourself in Lucca, look for the Baricentro in Via Fillungo. It is a humble, smallish cafeteria, but if you as for a "marocchino con la Nutella" you're in for a treat!